Crisis expert grades Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 update mea culpa

'A' for effort, but 'B+' because explanation was late and aimed at wrong audience

Microsoft's latest explanation of its Windows Phone 7 update fiasco gets an A for effort, but a B+ for its timing, a crisis communications expert said today.

"I'd give them an A for the apology, but a B+ on the timing and the audience," said Andy Stoltzfus, a digital strategist with Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C. firm that helps companies deal with public relations emergencies.

"They should have gotten their act together earlier," Stoltzfus said.

Stoltzfus graded the performance of Joe Belfiore, Microsoft's top executive for Windows Phone, who on Wednesday gave the most detailed explanation yet why promised updates for Windows Phone 7 haven't reached customers.

Microsoft has struggled to explain the delays for more than a month.

Several weeks ago, Belfiore said that most users had gotten a February update, a claim he admitted on Wednesday "was wrong." Before that, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had said that a larger update, nicknamed "NoDo," would be released in the first half of March. Shortly afterward, however, a Windows Phone 7 manager retracted Ballmer's pledge, saying NoDo would arrive later.

Users fumed when Microsoft blamed mobile carriers for the delay, a problem that Patrick Kerley, who also works at Levick, said Microsoft should have anticipated.

Earlier this week, Microsoft again said carrier testing for Windows Phone 7 smartphones made by HTC, LG and Samsung was not finished, prompting owners to again blast the company in more than 120 comments appended to a blog post.

The update snafu has prompted customers to call Microsoft confused and incompetent, especially after an independent developer figured out a way to grab Windows Phone 7 updates directly from Microsoft's servers. Microsoft later pressured the developer to pull the update tool, saying "It's even possible your phone might stop working properly."

On Wednesday Belfiore blamed the delays on a wide range of problems, including glitches in early versions of some handsets, a pause to verify that its update mechanism was working properly, and carrier testing of the updates. He also admitted that coordination between Microsoft, carriers and smartphone makers had not been up to snuff.

"One thing we struggled with is each of these things involves us and the OEMs or handset manufacturers and the mobile operators, and it's hard to coordinate which things we can say about what other people are doing," Belfiore said.

Stoltzfus said that Microsoft finally got it right this week.

"They got to the point, they addressed the issues and they talked about a solution going forward," said Stoltzfus of Belfiore's clarification. "Their messaging this time was right on point. They admitted there were mistakes, they explained the situation, and the focused on what they were going to do about it."

But Stoltzfus acknowledged that Belfiore came across as "a little defensive" on Wednesday. "His tone comes across as a little bit of shifting blame, a little defensive, but that's because Microsoft's been under fire in the past," said Stoltzfus.

And like his Levick co-worker Kerley, Stoltzfus rebuked Microsoft for not anticipating problems with carrier testing. "They should have done this right from the beginning," said Stoltzfus, explaining his B+ grade on timing.

Not only should have Microsoft done this much sooner, but it should have also reached out to the people most affected: Windows Phone 7 smartphone owners. "[Belfiore] was talking to a Web developer audience," said Stoltzfus. "But they need to reach the early adopters, they're the most critical."

To that end, Stoltzfus had some advice for Microsoft.

"A lot of the criticism took place online, in forums and in comments [on Microsoft's blogs]," said Stoltzfus. "Microsoft should be using the same online channels to get this message out."

Stoltzfus may have a point: The most recent blog post by Eric Hautala, general manager of Windows Phone 7's customer experience engineering team, currently sports 122 comments, nearly all negative. Neither Hautala or any other Microsoft employee has waded into the conversation to answer customer questions or respond to their complaints.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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