Even though Microsoft's Windows Phone platform has only managed to muster one percent of the US smartphone market share over the past year, it doesn't change the fact that they have done several things right. They have stuck to their game plan and, for better or worse, haven't paid much attention to what Google or any other competitors are doing. They've been marching to the beat of their own drum and it will soon pay off – at least they hope it will.
Regardless of whether Microsoft can manage to gain more market and mind share collectively as new manufacturers jump on board and more well-rounded software finally makes it to consumer hands, there are a few things that Google could learn from Microsoft. I'm sure Eric Schmidt and Andy Rubin were laughing off the Windows Phone announcement last year, but there was at least one point where they should have had their pens out, taking some serious notes.
Since day one, Google has struggled to make Android updates a fluid process. Third-party OEMs should take a large part of the blame for not working more diligently to get the latest software to their customers in a timely manner, but Google also has a hand in this. The window in which new phones (excluding Nexus devices, obviously) receive Android updates is anywhere from three months to a year or more ... that is, if they ever see the update. Some devices from a year or two ago were made without a lot of foresight and simply cannot handle the new software due to hardware constraints.
Microsoft, on the other hand, mentioned two key perks to Windows Phone during their announcement: rapid updates directly from Microsoft and no device left behind. Much like Google, Microsoft licenses Windows Phone out to partner manufacturers. But said partners pay a licensing fee and Microsoft has much more control over the hardware OEMs use and when software updates arrive.
It's worth noting that Microsoft's first software update was a bit rocky. Everyone was in the dark and nobody really knew what was going on. And the NoDo update only came after a series of delays and more confusion. But the first OTA push of Mango started yesterday and it appears as if Microsoft has finally worked out the logistics; they're giving a 4-week window in which over 98 percent of Windows Phone users should receive their update. (Much of this window is due in part to extensive carrier testing and approval.)
Being open source and giving away their platform for free, Google faces some challenges. If they become too demanding, they could risk their partnerships. OEMs have flocked to Android because it allows them to focus more on the hardware aspect of the phone and completely change the software, top to bottom, if they so desire. Three years in, if Google steps up and starts laying down the law, it could be the straw to break the camel's back after countless months of patent disputes. Not to mention, the Motorola acquisition may not settle as well with partners as they initially claimed. Since the announcement, several Android partners have shown interest in other platforms: Samsung is partnering with Intel for Project Tizen, HTC is in the market for their own software, etc. Whether this is a result of the possible acquisition of Motorola is unknown.
But something clearly needs to be done. Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) was released in December of 2010. It is now the end of September and a majority of Android phones are still running version 2.2. The ThunderBolt, which launched in March has just now begun to see the roll-out of its Gingerbread update after six months of baking on the market. This should not be acceptable.
Google has stepped in and made partners sign "non-fragmentation clauses" and run their plans by Andy Rubin first, but little has changed on the Android update front so far.
I'm not saying I expect Android updates all at once like Windows Phone or iOS. OEMs make changes to Android, and this isn't an overnight process. It does take time. But in no way should it take over nine months for phones to be updated to the latest software. They should be given a three- to four-month window in which the update should be pushed, at least to the carrier approval phase. Or at least offer a way to update early without the custom interface.
And the users should not be left in the dark. Over the past several months, Microsoft has at least detailed when the Mango update would land. They have also supplied a website, Update central, where users can go to get more information on Windows Phone updates. Google has said roughly with Ice Cream Sandwich will arrive, but that begs an entirely different question: when will users get the update?
Google is currently running the show, so they're obviously doing something right. But they seriously need to get a handle on their update process. There is no documentation, no structure and the users are at the mercy of the manufacturers and carriers. Come on, Goog, you can do better than this.