When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 with AT&T as its exclusive partner, it made two revolutionary changes in how mobile phones were sold and managed. First, it was to be sold without a carrier subsidy. Second Apple would control both the initial software load and all updates.
The first change didn’t last long. Faced with customer resistance, the price was cut from $600 to $400 two months after introduction. And when the iPhone 3G came out a year later, it was priced at $200 with a traditional carrier subsidy.
But Apple held firm on software and insisted on similar terms with all other carriers offering the iPhone. The result has been a tremendous advantage for Apple. When it pushes out an update, it is immediately available to every iOS device that can run it. Typically, a large percentage of users upgrade within days, especially now that the updates are distributed over the air. This means that the great mass of iPhone users are all running the same software at any given time. The users always have the latest and greatest and developers have a single OS version to target.
When it was introducing Windows Phone 7, Microsoft perceived the Apple advantage and was determined to follow the same part. Microsoft officials declared that it, not carriers or handset makers, would determine when upgrades went out. Unfortunately, however, they apparently failed to get that in writing. Trouble started with the very first “NoDo” update, and every software change since has staggered out on the carriers’ own schedule.
On a recent post on his Supersite for Windows, Paul Thurrott accused AT&T of hurting Windows Phone users and Windows Phone itself by holding off on distribution of an important bug fix that Microsoft made available in early January. Thurrott writes:
AT&T, I’d like my on-screen keyboard to stop disappearing when I’m typing. Microsoft fixed this bug in January, after putting that update through a wringer of tests that, get this, were partially designed by AT&T. There is no good reason for me and other Windows Phone users not to have this update already. No good reason at all.
The best that can be said about the Windows Phone situation is that it isn’t as bad as the horrific version fragmentation in the Android world, where handset makers are shipping new phones running the 2010 Gingerbread version of the operating system rather than the Ice Cream Sandwich version released last fall.
Apple has enjoyed phenomenal success with iPhone because the product is very good. But it has also been blessed by the monumental incompetence of the competition. Apple was able to force a major, pro-consumer change on carriers at a time when it had 0% of the market. And its sorry competition is still unable to match it.