Microsoft fixes NoDo nightmare with super-efficient Mango rollout

Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) is here

On September 27, 2011, Microsoft began its rollout of the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system update. This update, codenamed Mango, is significant for Microsoft for  a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it  brings 500-odd new and updated features to Windows Phone 7, bringing it closer to the competition like iOS and Android.  More importantly,  it is also a litmus test for Microsoft’s update process after the disastrous update experience earlier (with NoDoand SSL certificateupdates). This article focuses on the excellent job Microsoft has been able to do in the update process.

Background

Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 to general markets in October 2010, promising choice and variety over the monotony of iPhone, and a streamlined phone and application experience compared to the wild, wild west with Android. There were some glaring omissions in Windows Phone 7. Copy-paste and multitasking were two big items missing in the original release. Copy-paste functionality was announced as a soon-to-be-coming update at the time of the launch itself.

After a very long period of silence from Microsoft, it seemed like the NoDoupdate was finally being made available in March 2011. Even though Microsoft had not provided a date, this timeframe was thought to be a highly delayed one because it was common knowledge among Microsoft insiders that the update was ready by the end of December, and that carriers and OEMs were delaying the rollout to end users.

Besides being a highly delayed update for seemingly must-have capabilities like copy-paste, it turned out that not everyone was able to get the update at once. Compared to iOS updates, this process seemed extremely haphazard. After some very loud complaints about the lack of communication, Microsoft finally started blogging about the update process, and published a table which showed which carrier was pushing updates for the various phones. This table finally made it abundantly clear that the carriers were in fact holding up the update.

Competition

iOS updates are delivered on a specific date to every single device, regardless of carrier or country, as long as the device is eligible to get the update. This process has been in place since the very first software update they delivered. The only caveats are, over the years, certain devices have become ineligible for OS updates, and after Verizon introduced the iPhone, updates for the CDMA device are on a slightly different schedule. However, when an iOS update is made available, it is simply that available.

Android updates on the other hand are more sporadic and unpredictable. Google makes an update available for the OS, and then it is up to the OEMs and the carriers to certify that update. Google does not control the process at all, and lets the partners take care of delivering the update. Of course, Google’s Nexus devices get the updates at the time the OS is updated, but pretty much every device besides the Google Nexus devices will have their own schedule for receiving updates.

The beauty of Mango update

One huge surprise when the Mango update rollout was announced, was that almost all the phones across all the countries and all carriers were being updated. All at once! Globally, too. Granted, there are caveats like certain phones and especially phones with a certain firmware were not yet updating, and that it was a phased (throttled) rollout, but it is still incredible that in a matter of months Microsoft has been able to convince OEMs and carriers to cooperate and make this happen.

Unlike iOS where Apple is the OS maker as well as the OEM, Microsoft has to provide a build of the OS to the OEMs to test with, after which it would go to the carrier to test. Microsoft was able to get all the OEMs to synchronize their testing and then have all the carriers complete the testing by the time the update was announced as rolling out. This is incredible and it becomes immediately obvious when you compare it to Android which is much closer in its model than iOS is, to Windows Phone. The charts and table below show that as of September 2011, Android 2.3 and above are still only about 30% deployed. In about 6 months, Android has only been able to get to 30% deployment.

Android version distribution

Android version distribution

Android versions historical

Android versions – historical

In  the update announcement post, Microsoft is promising that in a few weeks, after throttling is disabled, every single existing device will have Mango available to them, across geographies, manufacturers and carriers. So in a matter of a few weeks, presumably, most Windows Phones will be on the latest version of the OS.

After its previous disasters in updates, Microsoft needed to prove that it had the muscle and the organizational setup to get an update rolled out smoothly. This announcement and subsequent reports of ease of applying the updates have proven that the ghastly memories of NoDo update can now be put away. Not only is Windows Phone the prettiest, most efficient and usable mobile operating   system with a range of carriers and OEMs to choose from, it is also an OS which updates like it should at once, uniformly, and quickly.

There’s a lot to be excited about Windows Phone coming up in the near (with Nokia) and distant future (with Windows 8 and possible merge of Windows Phone and Windows). As a Windows Phone user, I am glad that this update nightmare is over and cannot wait for what’s next!

Update: Just as I pushed “publish” on this post, I saw this update from Eric Hautala at the Windows Phone Blog, saying that the update is going so well, they are accelerating the rollout. Kudos, once again to everyone who’s behind this amazing turnaround. Remember Microsoft, this is now the new bar! :-)

Update 2: As of October 19, 2011, Microsoft has opened up the updates to generally everybody. This move is ahead of schedule and says a lot about the flawless nature of this update.

Touch Me! Microsoft gets ready for BUILD

build

We were greeted to Windows 95’s launch by The Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, a reminder of the new, but now iconic Start button in Windows. Maybe for Windows 8, Microsoft should use The Doors’ Touch Me.

//build/

We have been waiting anxiously for this day to arrive. Tomorrow, after months of keeping a tight leash (leaks notwithstanding) on the progress of or the details about Windows 8, Microsoft will reveal its newest operating system to the world at BUILD.

BUILD is Microsoft’s new developer-focused conference, a combination of PDC (Professional Developers’ Conference) and WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference). It is being held at the Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, CA.

What we know

Ever since Steven Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green revealed Windows 8 at All Things D’s D9 conference in June this year, the anticipation and expectations have gone up for what Windows 8 will be. Windows 8 sports a brand new Metro style interface with its big tiles. This interface is obviously suited to touch gestures and along with the upcoming Xbox dashboard update, it completes the trifecta of Metro styled interfaces from phones (Windows Phone 7) where it started, to PCs and TVs. Recently, Microsoft started a new blog dubbed Building Windows 8, where they have revealed (or confirmed rumors regarding):

  • Support for ARM architecture
  • System requirements for Windows 8 will be the same or less than Windows 7 requirements which means the hundreds of millions of PC’s being used today can be upgraded to Windows 8 without the need for further investment
  • The teamswithin Windows 8, which in some ways confirmed rumors such as existence of Hyper-V in the Windows 8 client and an App Store for Windows.
  • USB 3.0 support
  • New file copy/move/delete experience in Windows Explorer, along with a new conflict resolution user experience
  • Ribbon-ized Windows Explorer
  • Native support for accessing ISO and VHD files
  • Hyper-V in Windows 8 client
  • Extremely fast boot times in Windows 8

From what is explicitly mentioned in the blog and what was demonstrated at D9, we also know that Windows 8 will have two user interfaces. The first being the Metro style, tile-based, interface and the other being the classicWindows 7-style interface. Both these interfaces, Microsoft claims, are an effort to have no compromise. By no compromise, they are implying that just because an interface has touch-first design, does not mean it will not support keyboard and mouse. Microsoft realizes that a large portion of its user base uses Windows in an enterprise where the tile-based, touch-first interface may not be the most optimum. Hence, instead of ditching the past and starting afresh with the new paradigm, Microsoft is now at a stage where it has to explain how the two interfaces will co-exist. This co-existence leads to many more questions, which brings me to my next topic.

So You Want to Kick the Google Habit? [Editorial]

Google-Logo

 

Google Everywhere

It is hard to go online today without touching one or more Google products or services. If it is not search, it may be email, YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, Docs, or Calendar. Google has truly blanketed us with their web-based app offerings. Heck, even the Google Doodle is a conversation topic!

In this editorial, I shall discuss how you can kick the Google habit, what I am using now as alternatives and why you probably won’t be able to replace certain Google products today. Ready to move away from Google? First, some background.

Why un-Google?

Some of the reasons I personally decided to look for alternatives:

  • Google became a part of virtually everything I did online. I used GMail, Google Reader, Google Finance, Blogger, Picasa, Picasa Web, Google Docs, Google Search, Google Calendar and Google Maps. I felt uncomfortable putting such a large portion of my online life in Google’s hands.
  • Google morphed from the cool little startup building fun stuff for consumers, to a dominant public company whose revenues essentially came from just one product. That’s the key most (96%) of its revenues (and profits) came from search advertising. In other words, it needed other ways to make money. The most obvious way to do so would be to extend the arm of advertising, their main revenue-generating product, into other products. I realized I was the merchandise.
  • Google seemed to get Apple and Facebook envy. Apple was growing rapidly across all their product lines and at very high profit margins, and Facebook was taking eyeballs and key talent away from Google. This led to some bad attempts to mock Apple and Facebook publicly, which of course delighted the Google developer and enthusiast community but came off as being negative to me. If you make a great product, you don’t need a negative campaign.
  • Aside from philosophy, some of the competing products started becoming better, and Google’s products started getting worse (more on that within my descriptions) prompting me to start Project Un-Google which was an effort to use fewer and fewer Google products, hopefully reaching a point where I did not depend on any Google product at all.

Whether it is for philosophy, or hedging your web app bets, it is good to know there is life outside Google when it comes to products and services online and offline. There is usually a strong resistance to change, especially if you have a long history with a product. There is a high cost for transferring the old stuff, and learning your way around a new product/service. However, these challenges are not insurmountable, and I hope you take a look at some or all of the products I list here as an alternative to Google. If you have ideas of other products I may not have mentioned, please let me know!

Popular Google products

Here are some of the Google products/services I will be comparing to competition:

  • Search
  • Picasa
  • GMail
  • Calendar
  • Documents
  • Groups
  • Finance
  • Blogger
  • Chrome
  • Maps/Directions
  • Talk/Chat/Voice

I realize Google has many more products, appsand services, but I did not look at products like Book Search which are very niche. My attempt here is to look at the commonly used products and services only.

Windows Phone Mango RTM: What is still missing?

wp7

 

Today came the exciting and unexpected news of Windows Phone Mango’s Release To Manufacturing (RTM). The Windows Phone team has completed the release and handed it to mobile operators and handset makers to start testing the latest update to Microsoft’s mobile operating system reboot.

Windows Phone Mango has several hundred new features which have been covered at various places across the web, including some of the v1 annoyances it has resolved for me personally. Here I want to make a few comments on what still remains to be added. Granted, these are smaller in some ways than the gap that Mango closed, it is still worth talking about what Windows Phone lacks in terms of features and functionality already available in (or announced for) iOS and/or Android.

  1. VPN functionality: Windows Phone still does not support connecting to a Virtual Private Network (VPN), typically used to connect devices to corporate networks from outside the company. iOS offers native VPN support as well as support for VPN client apps.
  2. At-rest encryption: Encryption of the storage on the device is a huge issue for corporate IT departments in being able to support a mobile device. As smartphones get more and more capable of performing computer-like tasks, and as they start storing more and more company data, they also become a huge liability in case the phones get lost or stolen. At-rest encryption protects the data on the device in such cases. Microsoft has said that the isolated storage on the device is only available to the specific app and that is how they quasi-protect the data, but I don’t think IT departments think that is enough. iOS for example, has encryption built into newer devices since iOS4.
  3. Complete backup/restore: As part of the recent NoDo update, Windows Phone introduced phone backup, but it is crippled in that only Zune desktop can execute it, and it cannot really be triggered manually (on demand). iOS (iTunes) on the other hand, does provide a way to backup and restore on demand.
  4. Multiple Windows Live ID’s per phone: Windows Phone links the device to a Windows Live ID which you enter during setup. This is the ID used to connect to the Marketplace for purchasing apps and other content, but more importantly, it is also the ID used to access other in-built platform services like Zune Pass music subscription and Windows Live-connected services like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and obviously, Windows Live Messenger and Facebook chat. What if I want to share my purchased apps with my wife but we want to have our own Windows Live-connected services on our phones? It is impossible today without sharing a Live ID, but SkyDrive, IM, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are services which don’t translate well with a shared Live ID. On the other hand, iOS/iTunes allows you to use a different ID to purchase apps/content from the store, than from the one you associate with the device. So I envision that in Windows Phone you still enter a Windows Live ID at setup, which will tie the ID to all your platform services like SkyDrive, IM, Facebook, Twitter, etc., but when it comes time to purchase apps or content, you can choose which ID to use. 
  5. DLNA, Play To: When Windows Phone launched, DLNA capability was used by LG as a differentiator for their phones. Now that the initial launch dust has settled, it is about time Windows Phone included DLNA/Play To feature across the OS. This will be a good response to AirPlay which is one of the few really magical technologies that have come out of Apple. If I could beam my recently captured photos/videos from my Windows Phone to the TV via the XBOX or a TV-connected Windows 7 PC, it would be awesome. 
  6. [Updated 7/29/2011] Voice commands for Music/Zune: How could I miss this one? One feature that seems to be missing from Mango is the ability to use the excellent voice commands for Music playback (including of course podcasts), including controls like pause, play, stop and skip. I hope at least this one is a surprise feature in RTM which we have not seen in the beta builds.

Do you have anything else you would add to this list? Let me know!

Who can compete with the iPad?

The iPad is the king of tablets

Apple’s iPad has dominated tablet sales so far. Android tablets have started making some dents, but none of them are really gaining steam as a product (vs. Android tablets gaining some share as a collection). Harry McCracken at Technologizer asked the simple question every tablet maker should be asking at the time of creating their products: Why should someone buy this instead of an iPad?.

Not just the hardware

The iPad and iPad2 are exceptional products by themselves. Great design (although, I could do with a non-glossy/non-reflective screen), light enough to be really portable, GREAT battery life, and to me, a good size for a screen which would be used for media consumption like movies and TV shows via Netflix, hulu and the like.

The key to their success though, besides the hardware itself and the beauty of the operating system, is the ecosystem. The apps, music, movies, podcasts, iTunes U, and the sometimes overlooked accessory industry. Apple has made slow and steady progress in putting these pieces together and has a seemingly invincible position, but in the world of technology today, it could be very short-lived.

Of course, the starting price of $500, thought by many at the time of the iPad launch to be too high, seems like another killer feature of the iPad.

Ecosystem providers, real competition

Who can really compete with the iPad? Not just the tablet, but the entire package of the tablet, the ecosystem, and the price? Remember, it may be ok to just meet the iPad, but in order to create a serious dent, the competition has to have a pretty big advantage on almost all of the aspects. So, let’s see who is competing:

  • Android at the low end: Cheap Android tablets are everywhere but they may not have Google’s blessing and as a result be cut off from the first-class Android experience, including the Android Market. So they have the price advantage but nothing else.
  • Android at the top end: Motorola XOOM and Galaxy Tab started off as 3G devices sold by the carriers. They required a data contract or ended up costing more without data contract, than an iPad. They suffered from the data contract/price issue to start with, but more importantly, there are hardly any apps for Android in the tablet form factor. An ecosystem though, is not just about the apps, it should also provide a good collection of music, movies and TV shows, which Android seems to lack today.
  • HP TouchPad with webOS: HP recently launched the TouchPad and the sales as well as reviews are not encouraging. HP has a problem similar to Android tablets in terms of getting quality apps available for the customers. It does not have to be hundreds of thousands of apps like the iPad apps, but when you start from zero, it is really an uphill climb. HP does not have a marketplace for music, videos and TV either, but it is big enough to cut some deals and get something going. The point right now though, is that there is nothing on offer, making it difficult to justify the purchase for consumer use.
  • RIM Playbook and Windows 7 slates: I won’t go into too much detail because it is clear that RIM released this thing too soon. It is an unfinished product and has been a flop so far. It is hard to imagine a product from the maker of Blackberry devices that does not have native email and calendar. Native email and calendar are supposed to be coming this summer, but until then it is an incomplete product.   I am similarly ignoring Windows 7 tablets like the the Asus slate, because Windows 7 Touch seems like touch was slapped on Windows 7 rather than it being built for touch-first use. While it works much like a PC, thereby providing a healthy ecosystem to rely on, it is not really an iPad competitor because it is not as light, and is way more expensive.

Windows 8, Amazon tablet Two legitimate competitors

We know very little about Windows 8 and almost nothing about the Amazon tablet. In fact, we don’t even know if any such product is going to come from Amazon, but here is why I think either of these, or both, are going to be viable competitors to iPad (and also lay out conditions for their success).

Windows 8 (especially ARM version): ARM is known for its power efficiency, and we can assume that it will enable small form factor Windows 8 devices with a long battery life. Combine this with the public announcement by Steven Sinofsky that Windows 8 system requirements are going to be same or lesser than Windows 7, and we have a good chance of seeing Windows 8 tablets/slates in the iPad form factor with similar battery life. Windows has a great ecosystem which it supports on the XBOX and Windows Phone, in the form of the Zune Marketplace. It provides a huge collection of music, movies and TV shows. Windows of course, has the most extensive applications catalog (although the current Windows applications will not automatically work on ARM, but will do on Intel architecture as-is). Windows Phone has rapidly grown its app catalog, starting from zero in October/November of 2010 to about 25,000 this June. Since we don’t know what Windows 8 application development will be like outside of HTML/Javascript, let’s just assume that the app ecosystem will be rich enough to start with. This assumption is generally for Windows 8 with full support for legacyWindows applications. We cannot discuss ARM applications until we know more, supposedly at the //build/ conference in September this year.

One concern I have is that Microsoft seems to be fixated on the fact that tabletsare full PC’s, just in a different form factor. Maybe they consider slatesto be the lightweight PC with a similar form factor. I hope that one way or the other, that they understand that there is a product category which is not necessarily a full PC, but serves the purpose of casual computing much like the iPad does today.

Amazon tablet: Of all Android tablet makers, Amazon surprisingly is poised to be the best equipped in terms of an ecosystem it supports music, movies, TV shows, instant streaming, subscription, cloud storage, cloud music player, digital goods, and very recently, even its own curated Android market for apps! It has already shown manufacturing prowess with the highly successful Kindle, although I understand components for a tablet are different from those used in making the Kindle. Amazon also has a great retail shelf spaceto sell their tablet, and that is their home page, visited by millions of people every day.

If they can pull off a 9- or a 10-inch tablet built on Android with their own marketplace for apps, movies, music and TV shows, they would immediately be a competitor.

It is strange that I feel most optimistic about something that we may not see for one more year, and something that does not even exist as a product today. Such is the state of iPad competition (or lack thereof) today, that we are left to place our bets on almost-unicorns and unicorns.

I sure hope there is some real competition for the iPad though, because that can only be good for us, the consumers. Right?

How Mango Has Fixed Some of the Annoyances of Windows Phone 7

I have been excited about Windows Phone ever since it was unveiled at MIX last year. I bought it almost as soon as it was launched (I had to wait to get out of my corporate contract) and there were a lot of things that delighted me like Metro UI, Live Tiles and hubs, despite coming to this platform from iPhone 3GS. But at the same time, as a user, there were many things that annoyed me, some of which were bugs, and some were just the incompleteness of the platform. After all, Windows Phone was in fact a complete reboot for Microsoft in mobile.

Over the July 4th weekend, which was long weekend here in the US, I was able to successfully put the beta 2 of the next version of Windows Phone OS, codenamed Windows Phone Mango (Mango). I am now using it as my primary phone, and already noticing that some of those annoyances (most of them, in fact!) go away!

Video timestamp

Videos taken on the phone would end up getting the download/sync timestamp rather than capture date and timestamp. This was highly annoying, because for a trip, I would end up having all the pictures in the correct order, but the videos would get lumped together at the end. I had to then manually fix the date and time by looking at the still pictures taken before and after the videos (thankfully, the filenames are in sequence, so I was able to get approximations ok).

With Mango, the videos still get the timestamp of the download/sync but instead of a generic sequential filename, the videos get named with the capture date and time (up to the second!) in UTC time. So instead of WP_000001.mp4, I now would have something like WP_20110705_134523Z.mp4. Way better!

Windows Phone NoDovideo filename

Image 1: Windows Phone NoDovideo filename

Windows Phone Mangovideo filename showing video capture date and time

Image 2: Windows Phone Mangovideo filename showing video capture date and time

Video sharing

There was absolutely no way to do anything with videos on the phone; no email, no sharing via MMS, no upload to Skydrive, no upload to Facebook. The only contextual menu option on videos was delete.

With Mango, videos get the same treatment as still pictures. They can be emailed. They can be shared. The only thing Mango does not do is auto-upload in the background to Skydrive. I could choose videos to upload to Skydrive, but it just does not happen automatically. I am ok with that. [Note: It seems like upload to Skydrive is not working in the current build, but I am certain that it’s a problem due to it being a beta. The feature, to upload videos to Skydrive, is here to stay. So yay!]

Windows Phone Mangocontextual menu on videos taken on the phone

Image 3: Windows Phone Mangocontextual menu on videos taken on the phone

Windows Phone Mangovideo sharing options including Facebook and Skydrive

Image 4: Windows Phone Mangovideo sharing options including Facebook and Skydrive

Jumplist on applications list and Search

After I got my Windows Phone, I had the urge to install new and cool apps as soon as they were released. I did not delete most of these apps, because I wanted to get notifications when they get updated, that way I can keep up with what’s new and when there are updates. The problem for me was that the list of applications became extremely long, and I had to keep scrolling up and down that list to launch an app which I had not pinned. I can use voice to launch an app, and it is quite cool, but I am just not used to launching apps with voice.

With Mango, there is now the familiar alphabetical jump-list like the one which is available in the People Hub, now for applications. This way I can quickly jump to a letter and get all the apps starting with that letter. Better yet, there is also a search button now which allows me to just search (very quickly too) for the app. As Windows Team Blog states, the jump-list is smart, since it shows the alphabets for jumping only when the number of installed apps exceeds 45.

Jump-list and Search in Windows Phone Mangoapplication list

Image 5: Jump-list and Search in Windows Phone Mangoapplication list

Contact history

In Windows Phone NoDo, the history of a contact was limited to only the call history, and that it wasn’t really a contact history, but more of a call log.

With Mango, we have an extremely rich contact history, which you can get to via the contact card’s history. It groups not only calls in and out, but also all messages (SMS/MMS) and email to and from the contact, neatly split by weeks.

Over-The-Air (OTA) Podcast subscription

Podcasts were only possible to be loaded on the phone via Zune desktop (or the Connector software if you were on a Mac) and nothing on the phone. This was a pain because some of the podcasts that I listen to are daily, and I knew that there was a new episode but I had to wait till I got home and sync-ed with my home PC.

With Mango, I can not only subscribe to and manage my podcasts on the phone, but I can now listen to a one-off episode of a podcast, streaming directly from the Marketplace. Simply superb.

Windows Phone Mangopodcast listing and subscription screen, with option to play (stream) an episode

Image 6: Windows Phone Mangopodcast listing and subscription screen, with option to play (stream) an episode

Windows Phone Mangopodcast subscription settings details

Image 7: Windows Phone Mangopodcast subscription settings details

In addition to these annoyances there are many bugs which have been fixed in Mango, like Marketplace search, Live Tiles notifications (cannot open notification channelissue), bluetooth bugs, etc.

Manan Kakkar has already written about some of the cool new things he has noticed in Mango, and I concur, Mango is in fact a juicy and sweet as a release. There are also some of the new features which are well-written about, and I am genuinely excited about, like Internet Explorer 9 with HTML5, in-built IM, OS-based Facebook chat and OS-based Facebook check-ins, among others.

With new hardware, especially from Nokia, to support this Mango release, we can only get more excited about Fall! I am looking forward to it.