Mobile device OS upgrades: How hard can it be?

Until the iPhone’s arrival in 2007, upgrading the software on a mobile phone was a rare experience for users. So rare that effectively it was not done. Few people were bothered though since they did not see the product they used as a software product.

This was even true for Windows Mobile and Symbian which were licensed platforms. Microsoft tried several times to offer upgrade paths, but more often than not the device vendors did not push out updates or the process required to perform an upgrade made it the reserve of either those who were paid to do it or those who enjoyed the challenge.

In the era of the modern smartphone, upgrades are more common. Certainly with the iPhone the process is easy enough that opting out of an upgrade is more challenging than opting in. But it’s still not as common with other platforms. Even with all the resources and experience behind them, Microsoft is still stumbling with Windows Phone upgrading.

UPDATE 1-Microsoft explains phone software update delay | Reuters

But is it really a matter of blundering or is there evidence of nominal partners working at cross-purposes?

Upgrading a mobile device is technically challenging. There are many things that can go wrong. Integration helps, but it is also possible for a modular solution to be implemented. There are harder things to coordinate.

However, things go wrong and as the linked article above shows, fingers get pointed. Device vendors who have no stake in a platform can easily interpretan upgraded OS as one fewer hardware upgrade. Platform vendor’s lament that device guys want to proliferate unique versions and act with passive aggression. Device vendors see the software upgrade cycle as increased support and engineering costs with no upside. Consumers don’t know whom to blame and often turn to the operators since that’s who they pay every month.

The problem of upgrade failure is a symptom of a deeper dysfunction inherent in immature modular business architectures. It’s not just that the brightest at Microsoft or Nokia or Google can’t make an upgrade stick. It’s that the upgrade is not universally beneficial to the value chain. To remedy this, licensors have to resort to contractual obligations to ensure upgrades, but enforcement is non-trivial and can lead to aggravated relationships.

Unless all licensees of a platform find compelling value in shouldering the burden of upgrades, they will continue to be really hard. This leads to increasing fragmentation and a corrosion of platform value for licensed platforms vis-à-vis their integrated alternatives.