Common sense on non-upgradeable Windows 7 Phones

Poor old Microsoft. It announces a strong set of features for the next generation of Windows Phones, which I have covered in some detail here, including the news that it will be built on the full Windows 8 kernel, not the cut-down Windows CE as before. So how do people react? Not so much with acclaim for these features, but rather with shock and disappointment at the dreadful news: existing Windows Phone 7.x handsets cannot be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. This must be the end of Nokia, the argument goes, as sales will now stop dead until the new one is on sale.


Of course it would be better if Microsoft had managed to stay compatible with current hardware, but I think the fuss is overdone. Here is why.

  • First, we have seen this coming. It has been known for ages that Windows Phone would move from Windows CE to Windows 8. I first posted about it in March 2011 and it was fully confirmed about in February this year.
  • Second, it was never likely that Windows Phone 8 would run on Windows Phone 7 hardware. Perhaps it could be made to run, but of course you would not get multi-core, and it would probably not run well. A change of operating system is hard to accommodate.
  • Third, upgradability of smartphones is always an uncertain business. Operators do not like firmware upgrades, since it only causes them hassle. Some users like them, but mostly the vocal minority of tech enthusiasts, rather than the less vocal majority who simply want their phones to keep on working.
  • Fourth, Microsoft is in fact upgrading Windows Phone 7.x devices, with the most visible aspect of the upgrade, the new start screen. It is not ideal, but it is substantial; and there will be other new features in Windows Phone 7.8.

I doubt therefore that Windows Phone 7 sales will stop dead because of this.

Microsoft’s bigger problem, of course, is that the thing is not selling that well anyway. At this stage, it makes sense for the company to go all-out with the best possible features in Windows Phone 8, rather than compromising for the sake of the relatively small number of 7.x owners.

Another question: is Nokia damaged by this? My view is simple. Nokia, for better or worse, has tied its fortunes closely to those of Microsoft. In other words, what is good for Microsoft is good for Nokia. Nokia is the number one hardware partner for Windows Phone, and the prototype shown at the Windows Summit yesterday was a Nokia device. If Windows Phone 8 is a winner, Nokia wins too.

10 thoughts on “Common sense on non-upgradeable Windows 7 Phones”

  1. Remember when Microsoft promised that Windows Phone wouldn’t suffer from the fragmentation of Android? It was already starting but now, with the first major OS update, they’ve completely cut off every old/current phone, just a few years after doing the same with to Windows Mobile users.

    Maybe they’ll do it yet again of Metro / WinRT doesn’t take off.

    OS designed to take advantage of multiple cores can still run fine on single-core hardware. Smartphones are very capable machines these days and there’s no technical reason — unless the new OS or the old hardware is just not very well made — that the new OS couldn’t run on the old hardware is MS wanted it to. It’s not like they don’t have the resources to make it happen.

    There may be certain applications, features or eye-candy which could not run on the older hardware but the core OS and APIs themselves should be portable.

    This wasn’t inevitable at all. It’s an insult to early adopters, and a backtrack on the promise to avoid fragmenting the platform/APIs.

    1. If that’s fragmentation, then every OS maker is guilty of it.

      Fragmentation on Android is not because they suddenly have two disparate operating systems targeting two disparate hardware requirements. It’s because device manufacturers cut corners, have their hardware “lie” to the Android APIs to make the system believe it has access to features it doesn’t actually have, and they implement software differentiation that disrupts the core Android APIs (which they can do since it’s open source).

      Microsoft still has tight control over the required specifications of the hardware, even if they don’t directly control the manufacturing process. And if Surface does well, I would expect a purchase of Nokia to produce Microsoft branded Winphone 8 devices.

      Apple’s handset hardware (as well as most Android handsets) are generally only compatible with a couple iterations of the OS. That’s no different than what Microsoft is doing here.

    2. Certainly every multi-CPU OS that *I* am familiar with, also runs on a single-CPU machine. But perhaps Win8 assumes multi-core because somebody decided that satisfactory performance was going to need it anyway?

      This is a lot more significant issue than the author is claiming. If forward compatibility didn’t matter, Nokia would not be in the distress it is in today. Nokia must not have any bargaining chips, or they would have demanded that Microsoft release a version of “WP8” that ran on the Lumia series, even if it was missing several WP8 features due to lesser hardware.

  2. Potential WP8 won’t fail to hear or notice their phone risks being stuck, and a market Microsoft targets is the business one, which won’t fail to notice either. They also mention only 18 month of updates, which means that soon there will be several OS versions in use, with users stuck on old ones, just like in the Android world.

    Contrast this with iOS where the hardware is the real limiting factor, and fragmentation is kept to a minimum.

    Microsoft is just losing an opportunity to buil confidence, and is instead fostering defiance…

  3. I think if Android phones can continue to sell with 2.3, there’s no reason a Windows Phone 7 device shouldn’t be able to sell.

  4. Buy a phone for what it does now. Not what it *might* do in the future.

    If you need the features in WP8 then wait for it’s release. If WP7.5 meets your needs then go for it. WP7.8 will only make it better anyway, that’s a bonus rather than a requirement.

    1. Suppose you had a choice:

      • Machine A implements a long list of nice features, and has a few latent bugs.
      • Machine B is the same, but the manufacturer shows a commitment to working out the wrinkles over time, plus providing new features that didn’t make the cut for the original release.

      You telling me that Machine A is the equal of Machine B?

      Options ALWAYS have value. In the case of cellphones, which are undergoing dramatic change every year, and from a vendor which is still in catch-up mode, the option of getting what looks OK now, PLUS a deal sweetener down the road, is worth maybe 20% more than option (A).

      Of course, given Microsoft’s recent history with consumer products (e.g., Zune, Kin, PlaysForSure), I’d not be much of a buyer because what I think is on offer is:
      • Machine C, which is likely to be orphaned as a somewhat panicky Microsoft changes long-term strategy dramatically another 12 months down the road when the current plan seems to be bleeding.

  5. Tim, you might of known about compatibility issues for a long time, but either the salesmen didn’t or were happy to lie. My father needed a new phone at short notice and thought he would buy Windows because that’s what he knows on his PC. He bought an expensive HTC because he had heard W8 was coming and the salesman told him he would get an automatic upgrade. He likes to show off his tech purchases and was absolutely furious to be left behind within six months.

    1. If he was deceived by the salesperson I’d have thought he would have a good case to return it.


  6. Yes, we all knew that Windows Phone OS would move from CE Kernel to NT Kernel. You know, the kernel that was designed in the early nineties to run on an number of very different hardware configurations. Even today, in Windows 8, it will run on both Intel and ARM architecture. So not porting it to the current WP7 hardware is not a technical impossibility, but a business decision. And it sucks.

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