Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has big plans for the Windows Phone. The Redmond tech giant will take a page from Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) playbook, saying it will deliver software updates to users' handsets directly, bypassing mobile carriers in the process.
When it comes to software updates, wireless carriers often get in the way, limiting the uptake of major operating system releases. Since the earliest days of the iPhone, Apple has avoided this issue, but handsets running Microsoft's software and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android have been hamstrung by it. If Microsoft can make good on its promise, it could make the Windows platform more appealing.
Android's fragmentation problem
Google's latest version of Android, Android 5.0 Lollipop, has been available since last November. Yet despite its age, the overwhelming majority of Android handsets still run older versions of Android. According to Google's own data, only about 12% of Android handsets that visited the Google Play store last month were running the latest version of Android. The previous two versions, Android 4.4 KitKat (unveiled in 2013) and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (2012) were more than twice as popular.
This is a fact that Apple's management never gets tired of citing. It's become something of a tradition for Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, to draw attention to Android's fragmentation, a semi-regular occurrence during his presentations at the Worldwide Developers Conferences Apple has held over the last few years. Apple's iOS break-down looks great in comparison: More than 80% of iOS devices are using iOS 8, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system.
Why the discrepancy? Apple controls operating system updates directly. iPhone and iPad owners can update to the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system over Wi-Fi or via iTunes the day it's released. In contrast, Google's hardware partners handle Android updates individually, working with carriers to get them certified for particular devices. This results in delays that are often months long, and many older Android handsets never get updated at all.
But this isn't as big of a problem as Apple makes it out to be: Google uses its Play store to push updates to Google Play Services every six weeks, bringing the most crucial functionality to older Android devices. Yet major updates -- like the graphical and user interface improvements Android 5.0 brings -- are still held back.
Microsoft has made this promise before
Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone, faces a similar problem, with some Windows Phone devices stuck running older versions of Microsoft's mobile operating system. According to Microsoft, that will soon change: With Windows 10, Microsoft has said it plans to take an approach akin to Apple's, delivering Windows Phone updates directly to users.
It's worth noting, however, that this is a claim Microsoft has made in the past. In 2010 it said it would support Windows Phone with direct over-the-air updates, bypassing carriers in the process. Yet owners of several Windows Phones have had to wait months for major updates. Microsoft launched Windows Phone "Denim" last September, but it took until earlier this year for some owners of the Lumia 830 to receive it.
Windows mobile isn't dead -- yet
Given that updates often bring significant performance improvements and greater functionality, more timely updates would certainly be a positive for Windows Phone, and would give the operating system a slight advantage over Google's Android. That said, it probably wouldn't be enough to matter -- at least not by itself. Microsoft's share of the smartphone operating system market continues to hover in the low single digits -- it's barely even relevant at this point in time. Meanwhile, Google's Android and Apple's iOS account for more than 90% of the mobile devices sold worldwide.
Direct software updates should be seen as a positive development, but Microsoft will need to do much more to revive its struggling mobile operating system.