Microsoft Finally Gets Transparent on Phone Updates

Chances are, if you bought a Windows Phone 7 (s msft) handset prior to this month, you’re waiting for the first software update, codenamed “NoDo.” Phones that initially launched this month on Microsoft’s platform come pre-loaded with the update, which adds a few new features and performance improvements. After missing its first self-imposed deadline of mid-March, Microsoft pushed the update to the last half of this month, but only a few phones have seen the update so far. Most handset owners have been in the dark as to when they’ll see the promised software. As a result, Microsoft is now posting a status page where handset owners can learn when to expect the NoDo update on their phone.

This last step actually should have been the first one, because it would have avoided some of the negative attention the company has earned through a series of update mishaps. For starters, the NoDo update is relatively limited in what it brings to Windows Phone 7 devices, which still have yet offer core features found in competing handset platforms. The final version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system was completed late last summer, so some, including myself, expected to see more progress with Windows Phone 7’s feature set by now.

Last month, speaking at the Mobile World Congress event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said  this first software update would be available for all Windows Phone 7 devices in the first two weeks of March. That effort first stumbled with reports of a preparatory update causing particular phone models to be inoperable. The right thing to do was to pull back the software for additional testing, which Microsoft did. At that time, the new target date was set for the end of March, and some handsets are now starting to receive it.

With the new status page, handset owners can see what progress is being made with the update for their particular handset. Based on the phone model, the update could be in one of three stages: testing, scheduling and delivering. The testing phase is self-explanatory, as handset makers and carriers want to ensure the new software doesn’t negatively impact the customer, although I expect the timeframe for such efforts is largely out of Microsoft’s control. Scheduling means that Microsoft is preparing the software release, which it says typically takes 10 days or less. Finally, the delivering phase is when Microsoft is sending updates notifications to handsets, at which time, customers need to connect their phone to a computer for update download and installation.

While Windows Phone 7 handset owners now have a clearer understanding of the update’s status — which Microsoft says it will refresh on a weekly basis — I’m still questioning one aspect: delivery. Even after a handset enters the delivering phase, Microsoft says the update may not appear for weeks because it stages the update in batches. If the software has to be downloaded from Microsoft’s servers, can’t they handle an upgrade en masse? The only reason I can think of requiring such staging is in case of implementation issues, which is smart from a safety perspective, but shoots the entire self-imposed deadline in the foot. My HD7, for example, still hasn’t received the update from February, although it’s now in the scheduling phase.

In some ways, the situation is better in the Microsoft world than in the Google Android space, which faces version fragmentation, but these are different scenarios. Google develops Android with added features in each release that developers can take advantage of. But Google simply makes the updated platform available; it doesn’t push the system updates out to phones, with one notable exception in the Nexus line of handsets. By comparison, Microsoft is taking responsibility for getting phones up to date, which is a positive sign. It’s also easier, at least in theory, because the company set minimum hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7 handsets, so the few different models share many of the same internals.

I fully sympathize with Microsoft on the complexity of software updates for smartphones, because there are many players involved: consumers, handset makers, and numerous network operators. But I keep coming back to one point in all of this: other companies have proven that they can better manage such updates in a fast-moving and complex environment. If Microsoft can’t do the same, what does that say about its ability to become the third mobile platform behind iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog)?