Windows Phone 8 sucker punches Windows Phone fans

The Apollo update would be great news -- if Microsoft hadn't just punched Windows Phone fans in the face.

Natasha Lomas Mobile Phones Editor, CNET UK
Natasha Lomas is the Mobile Phones Editor for CNET UK, where she writes reviews, news and features. Previously she was Senior Reporter at Silicon.com, covering mobile technology in the business sphere. She's been covering tech online since 2005.
Natasha Lomas
5 min read

Yesterday Microsoft showed Windows Phone fans what to expect when the next iteration of its mobile operating system lands this autumn -- and simultaneously sucker-punched its most loyal fans by confirming existing Windows Phones won't be getting an update to Windows Phone 8.

Let me make that point really clear: if you just shelled out for a Windows Phone you won't be able to update it to Windows Phone 8. "The answer, unfortunately, is no," as Windows Phone head honcho Joe Belfiore put it in a blog post about the changes.

What does Windows Phone 8 bring? Lots of the things the platform has been sorely missing up to now -- including support for multi-core chips, higher resolution screens, expandable storage, NFC, improved mapping, in-app payments and even a more flexible homescreen, with three different sizes of live tiles now supported. That doesn't matter so much for existing WP users, as we'll see.

(Incidentally, the new look Windows Phone live tiles effectively recreates the mix of widgets and icons you get on an Android device -- just with a more regimented look.)

Windows Phone 8 update home screen

Much more importantly, Windows Phone 8 will also share a core with Microsoft's next gen desktop OS Windows 8 -- which should make life much easier for app developers and thus encourage many more apps to be created for handsets.

All of which sounds great, but if you own any one of Nokia's Lumia phones -- or indeed any other Windows Phone 7 or 7.5 device -- Microsoft has just left you out in the cold.

The pace of technology change does mean hardware becomes defunct relatively quickly -- but the Windows Phone platform isn't even two years old yet. Contrast this to the recent announcement by Apple that iOS 6 would be coming to the iPhone 3GS, a device that launched back in 2009. Now, Apple's approach is something of a fudge -- it has left out some features and previous updates have not worked brilliantly on its older hardware -- but it's hard not to feel burned on Windows Phone fans' behalf.

The oldest Nokia Lumia has barely been with us for a year and a half. Nokia's newest Lumias -- the 610 and 900 -- are still box fresh.

There's no getting away from it, this is a really nasty way to treat your most faithful supporters.

Aptly enough, the Greek god Apollo -- Microsoft's code name for Windows Phone 8 -- was considered a bit of a mixed blessing, being both associated with medicine and healing but also sickliness and death by plague.

On the surface, Windows Phone 8 looks like it will mend a lot of the OS's major shortcomings. But its arrival creates a sickly subsection of Windows Phone hardware that won't be benefitting from most of these fixes. Don't expect Windows Phone 8 apps to run on your Windows Phone 7.5 phone. There's no backwards compatibility for apps. That door has been closed.

Sure, existing Windows Phone owners were never going to get higher resolution screens or dual-core chips via a software update, but these people have previously been told they don't need better hardware -- that Windows Phone handsets were good enough already and stuff like multicore chips was just a waste of time.

Microsoft has now made it really clear the opposite is true -- and flagged up the unfortunate truth that its most loyal followers have been sold a donkey, not a racehorse.

In reviews of recent Windows Phones such as the Lumia 900 I've warned potential buyers to beware the risk of being saddled with an expensive bright blue brick, because of the question mark about future updates. Sad to say, Microsoft has not been keeping its fans so well informed -- despite being fully aware the shift to basing Windows Phone on the same kernel as desktop Windows would cut the umbilical cord to Windows Phone 7.5.

There was no official confirmation of the looming schism between Windows Phone 7 and 8. Instead Microsoft opted for a 'no comment' approach which, here at CNET Towers, set the alarm bells ringing. But the average mobile buyer walking into a phone shop wanting a new device and coming out with a shiny new Windows Phone would probably have been none the wiser.

It's doubly galling since the people who bought Windows Phone handsets were already making do with fewer (and much more expensive) apps than Android and iOS owners enjoy -- and less capable hardware. Yet now their loyalty and willingness to support a mobile underdog is being rewarded with a bloody nose.

In an attempt to soften this blow, Microsoft is going to parachute in one more update on Windows Phone 7.5. This will be known, rather unfortunately it must be said, as Windows Phone 7.8 -- and will mean you do get the new homescreen.

But a new homescreen is poor compensation for such shoddy treatment. Microsoft should be careful about playing fast and loose with mobile users' goodwill. It can ill afford to alienate people when there are scores of highly capable and affordable Android phones up for grabs. Or years-old Apple iPhones which aren't being prematurely shut out of the iOS playground.

The Windows Phone 8 schism is also very bad news for Nokia -- which is desperately trying to shift existing Lumias, having killed the Symbian cash-cow by giving Windows Phone a bear-hug. Who's going to buy a Lumia 900 or Lumia 800 now -- knowing full well these phones are being cut off from the platform's future? Nokia has said it will be bringing some "visual enhancements" to Lumia owners, but you can practically hear Stephen Elop scrabbling around for loose change to fling in their direction.

As for Windows Phone 8 -- these updates are certainly welcome but there's no getting away from how late they are. Microsoft remains on the back foot, playing catchup with Android and iOS. And the big question for mobile lovers -- why should I buy into a poorer ecosystem? -- has not yet gone away.

Windows Phone fans are going to have to carry on being patient -- with another three or four months to wait for the arrival of the (re)rebooted Windows Phone. And, come the autumn, Microsoft is going to have to hope and pray it hasn't used up all their goodwill.