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A job advert posted on the Microsoft website points to plans for a Windows Mobile update system, extending the customer relationship beyond a sticker on the box.

"Have you wished to see your Windows Mobile phone with new features 'magically' show up without you buying a new one?" says the advert, spotted by Ars Technica, before going on to suggest that anyone with 10 years MS experience might like to lead up a team dedicated to making that happen while acknowledging it's not going to be easy.

In-field updating is very "in" at the moment, and Microsoft feels the competition is making a better job of it, though Redmond faces particular challenges in getting updates out given the breadth of devices out there and the complexity of the delivery chain.

Mobile phones generally come in "vanilla" and "variant" versions, with the latter including operator-specific settings and software as well as branding - sometimes physical as well as soft. Microsoft has always been more open than most to variants: Nokia has a strict list of items which can be altered by operators, minimum order numbers, while Microsoft simply asks what the operator would like to change and then (generally) makes it happen.

That flexibility has been key in getting a decent device subsidy from operators. This is important when Windows Mobile devices tend to be expensive. It also means that Redmond can simply ignore functionality it doesn't understand - such as Java. Operators, or manufacturers, fit their own Java virtual machine, or even change the whole device interface in ways that would have the Fins in fits.

But all that flexibility makes getting updates out really hard. One piece of hardware may have a dozen different variants for different operators, and a single operator may even require different versions over time or to address different demographics, all of which makes issuing updates very difficult.

Apple deals with this issue by simply not having variants, while Nokia keeps close control on what can be varied and can thus create different versions pretty quickly. It's too early to say how Android and Palm might address the problem, but Microsoft just doesn’t allow users to upgrade the OS on Windows Mobile devices unless there's a really good reason to do so.

But issuing updates does more than fix bugs and distribute eye candy. It can create a relationship between the OS vendor and the customer, as Apple has so ably demonstrated. Microsoft is also going to want to be able to update their application marketplace client, if nothing else, and would certainly like users to identify their phone as a "Microsoft" device rather than anything else.

That will require a modular OS that allows parts to be updated, rather than the monolithic downloads that characterise firmware updates today. It is therefore unlikely to come before the Windows-formerly-known-as-"Mobile" version 7, though some basic capability will probably come with 6.5, due later this year. At which point, you'll be able to "see greater and better quality and cool software delivered to your love ones’ Windows phones from just a click?", assuming Microsoft can find someone to take on the job. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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