As Microsoft prepares to release a major upgrade to its Windows Phone operating system, to version 8.1, some third party software makers are unsure whether smartphones running Windows Phone 8.0 will run the new OS.
Three software vendors said this week that price discounts by carriers on some Windows Phone 8 smartphone models and slower than expected sales of these devices make them wonder whether Microsoft and its phone makers, including Nokia and Samsung, are trying to reduce WP8 inventories before new WP8.1 phones arrive.
The Windows Phone 8.1 upgrade could appear in November or after the first of the year, according to analysts and software vendors, but Microsoft isn't saying. Nokia, which makes 80% of Windows Phones and is being acquired by Microsoft isn't saying either. Samsung didn't comment.
Asked whether Nokia's WP8 phones, including the Lumia 1020 and the low-cost Lumia 520, would be upgradeable to version 8.1, Nokia issued two differing statements to Computerworld just two hours apart early Wednesday. The first emailed statement from Nokia spokeswoman Nina Ratavaara said, "We don't comment on future products, but Microsoft has confirmed that smartphones running Windows Phone 8 will be upgradeable to Windows Phone 8.1."
Two hours later, she corrected the first statement to say only that "Microsoft has confirmed that smartphones running Windows Phone 8 will be upgradeable."
Microsoft said that it would not share its future plans, but then added that the Windows Phone OS "is upgradeable ... If or how individual devices are upgraded has not been announced."
Three software makers that hope to produce apps and other products for mobile device management or tools to run HTML 5 Web-based apps on various platforms including Windows Phone were amazed by the statements from Microsoft and Nokia and urged more clarity. They and various analysts noted how Windows Phone 7 devices couldn't be upgraded to Windows Phone 8, an indication that history could be repeating itself.
"It wouldn't surprise me at all if current Windows Phone 8 phones don't work on 8.1," said Abe Elias, chief technical officer at Sencha, a Web app development company that uses HTML 5 to build apps that can run across platforms such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone.
Another executive at a third-party software maker that builds apps for Windows Phone 8 and the older Windows CE OS that is still used in many industrial settings said he expects WP8.1 to be a major upgrade that will provide the upgrade path for the CE devices that haven't been updated since 2009. He also said that Silverlight, a development tool for Web and mobile apps, won't be supported on 8.1. He spoke on the condition that he wasn't named, since he said some of the information is privileged.
Regarding concerns from that source that Silverlight won't be available for 8.1, Microsoft said in a blog in June that it was designing its "next release to run existing Windows Phones apps and games with the same tools and the same technologies you're using today."
The blog comment didn't specifically mention Silverlight, but a Microsoft spokeswoman on Wednesday said it should help clarify speculation about Silverlight.
That source and another software vendor working with Windows Phone smartphones who asked not to be named said Microsoft needs to be more forthcoming with its upgrade plans, since so many third party vendors are dependent on what happens. The source said consumers also need to know whether they can buy a current smartphone that can be fully upgraded to 8.1 in the next few months.
Analysts said that while Nokia had an increase in its third quarter of sales of Lumia devices, the future of Windows Phone is still far from secure in a competitive smartphone market led by Android, with iOS second. Windows Phone has about 3% of market share, ranking third. Given its ranking, Microsoft and Nokia need to be more open with customers about their plans for 8.1, analysts said.
"All this noncommitment is what drives end users crazy," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.
He said Nokia's vague statements, with one correcting the other just two hours apart, indicates that there will likely be an "interim" version of Windows Phone between 8.0 and 8.1. Under that scenario, it is possible that some or all current 8.0 phones won't be upgradeable to the full versions 8.1.
Gold said even some Android devices don't always get upgraded, although new ones purchased in the last one to two years usually do. "Of the majors, only Microsoft seems to be hiding the facts or at least not being straight about them," Gold said. "Users have a right to expect a yes or no answer" as to whether their specific devices are upgradeable. In this case, both Microsoft and Nokia are at fault for not being straight with their customers, which seems like a repeat of the same story we saw the last time Windows Phone had a major upgrade."
Gold urged buyers to beware when buying Windows Phone 8 smartphones and to be satisfied that a discounted price is worth not having the ability to upgrade, if that occurs.
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said two days ago that he "cannot imagine that Windows Phone 8.1 won't work with Windows Phone 8" devices. But then, when Microsoft and Nokia issued their statements on Tuesday and Wednesday he added: "It's like Microsoft to take two steps forward and one step back."
This article, Windows Phone 8.0 smartphones might not be upgradeable to 8.1, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.