Why am I still on Windows Mobile 5?

My blog post after my first day with the T-Mobile Ameo still gets a surprising number of views, and has raised some interesting questions.

I got a good question this week that is worth a separate post: with Windows Mobile 6 out since February, what am I still doing on Windows Mobile 5?

Why would I want to upgrade?

It’s worth giving some quick background – Windows Mobile 6 (WM6) is a definite improvement on Windows Mobile 5 (WM5). Not a massive improvement, but certainly worth it. The performance is better, there are bug fixes, it improves battery life (the holy grail!), it looks prettier, and there are some neat new features like the ability to support HTML (rather than just plain text) emails.

I do want WM6.

Is it possible to upgrade?

Technically? Yup, absolutely.

WM5 and WM6 are similar enough that upgrades should be perfectly feasible. It isn’t even like the jump from the previous version (2003) to WM5, where there were big architectural changes like a change to the type of memory used. Hardware-wise, a WM5 device should be able to run WM6. (In fact, the performance improvements mean that typically a device should run WM6 better than WM5!)

And lots of mobile phone providers are making updates to WM6 available – for example, in just the past few weeks, Jason Langridge (Windows Mobile guy in Microsoft UK) has blogged about updates being made available by Vodafone for the Treo 750, HTC for the Herald, and O2 for some of their XDA’s.

So it must be possible to package and roll-out user-installable upgrades that turn a WM5 device into a WM6 one.

The hardware design that my T-Mobile Ameo is essentially cloned from – the HTC Advantage – can now be bought with Windows Mobile 6 pre-installed. So the hardware design certainly has no problems running WM6.

Where would I get the upgrade from? (Or why can’t I just go to Microsoft?)

Before getting into why I can’t get an upgrade, it’s worth setting the scene for people not as interested in mobile phones as me!

There is a brilliant blog post on upgrading on the Windows Mobile team blog, but to (hopefully fairly) paraphrase: the software running my PDA (although described in a broad hand-wavey fashion as “Microsoft Windows Mobile”) is actually a mish-mash of software from different companies. A lot of it is the core WM operating system from Microsoft, but there is also a bunch of stuff from the phone manufacturer, HTC. “And the part they do is the most complicated part of the device: the drivers, parts of the kernel, and the radio stack”, as well as a number of (quite nice!) utility applications and enhancements to the OS. And finally, there is a smaller amount of (largely poor) stuff added by the mobile phone carrier, T-Mobile – before they ship the phone out the door.

Traditionally, updating the “OS” on smartphones is difficult because it’s not just a matter of getting the new version from Microsoft – everyone else has to update their bits, too. I need to get an update from T-Mobile – who would take the updated OS files from Microsoft, together with any updated drivers and software from HTC and bundle it together in a form that I can download and install.

So what’s the problem?

In short, T-Mobile don’t want to do this.

In their defence, why would they? They’ve sold me the PDA, they’ve got my money. Why go to the trouble of sorting out an update? Even if the development work is minimal, it’s still work. And there would still need to be some testing done to make sure that any update doesn’t trash people’s phones (and I’ve spent enough of my career for both Motorola and IBM as a tester to know that testing is time-consuming and expensive to do properly).

The MS blog post does a nice job of explaining the economics of it, but the basic point is that it’s likely to be a lot of pain for very little gain – updating a phone’s OS is a fairly geeky thing to do, so how many people would actually do it? Enough to justify the work?

T-Mobile apparently think not. I’ve not contacted them myself, but a number of other Ameo owners have shared T-Mobile’s replies to requests for an upgrade. At the risk of misrepresenting their position (see examples of their replies in full), it seems that their replies basically say that they don’t think it’s worth the hassle – the effort involved in getting the upgrade ready combined with the risk (however small) of people trashing (or “bricking”) their phones just outweighs the benefit that they think they’d get.

Are T-Mobile right?

Before I settle into a little bit of a rant, it’s worth saying that T-Mobile can do what they want. They never promised to, or even implied that they would, make WM6 upgrades available. They sold me a PDA as a WM5 device, and don’t owe me anything extra.

That out of the way… it is massively annoying. I think that they overstate the risks involved in upgrading. The MS blog post was written a couple of years ago now, when the upgrade from PPC2003 to WM5 was a big jump, so it is a little out-of-date in how it describes the difficulties in upgrading. Not only are WM5 and WM6 much more similar beasts, as it describes towards the end of the post, Microsoft put a lot of work in WM5 to make it easier to roll-out updates.

For a measure of how much easier it is, you just need to look at how many mobile phone providers (both UK and international) have provided free WM6 upgrades, and compare it with the number of providers who offered updates to WM5 a couple of years ago (i.e. virtually noone).

In fact, of all of the clones of the HTC Advantage design (of which T-Mobile Ameo is just one), T-Mobile are the only one that I have heard of not to offer an upgrade.

I think they overstate the costs of having to support users to do an OS update. While it is perhaps a little geeky, it isn’t that hard – I used to be an O2 customer and in the 18 months I had the XDA Exec they provided two OS revisions through their My XDA website. You download an .exe to your PC, connect your PDA to your computer with a USB cable, then run the program and let it do it’s thing for a couple of hours. Really not hard. And the sort of people who are interested in this sort of thing will be technical enough to cope!

Although I realise that T-Mobile don’t have to provide an update, I did kind of expect them to. The Ameo isn’t really a phone – it’s a small computer. And while software updates for mobile phones are perhaps unusual, making OS updates available for computers isn’t. The way that the Ameo is pitched as a UMPC-esque mobile computer does create an expectation that it will be supported in a computer-like way. That is, that updates will be made available and supported for the reasonable life of the device – rather than saying that “you can have a software update the next time you buy a new computer with it installed on”.

That’s how the other carriers all seem to be treating it, anyway.

So why stay with T-Mobile?

Their data plans are the best I’ve found in the UK. I like the web’n’walk package enough to put up with them for now.

Can I get Windows Mobile 6 from somewhere else?

Windows Mobile 6 builds pop up available for download on forums and websites. Sometimes these are Microsoft test builds, sometimes they are copies of the ROM that owners of HTC Advantage devices (or other clones) with WM6 on have extracted from their device and made available.

There is an interesting discussion on the Windows Mobile team blog about whether it is worth risking unofficial updates, which points out that they are probably illegal.

Even if this didn’t bother me, I’m not sure I want to risk an unofficial update from an untrusted source. I rely on my Ameo too much and if something goes wrong, T-Mobile aren’t likely to help me. They don’t (again, unlike O2 that I am used to) make even the pre-installed OS available for download that I could use to restore if I get in a mess.

I’ve been tempted to go ahead and try one a number of times. But for now, it just feels a little safer to stick with what I’ve got…

So that’s why I’m still on Windows Mobile 5. 🙂

One Response to “Why am I still on Windows Mobile 5?”

  1. Simon Dale says:

    T-Mobile are poor at this side of things. I wish I could get hold of an official upgrade for my T-Mobile Vario II. My second attempt at a cooked ROM (Black 2.5 from XDA-developers.com) has been working fine for months but there are slight niggles which I always wonder about…would they be there in an official ROM?

    In my case there is a good chance that their policy will cost T-Mobile a customer with me. Not because I’m annoyed about my Vario II but because I don’t want to buy an Ameo with WM5 from them. I’d rather get hold of a HTC Advantage with WM6 on it instead.

    Thanks for a very informative article

    Simon Dale