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Oh NoDo You Don't: Getting the Windows Phone Update Now

Microsoft has done everything it can to prevent me and other Windows Phone customers from getting the first real software update for Windows Phone. And while I can't defend its actions, or even understand them, I can at least work around the software giant. So that's what I've done. Bypassing Microsoft's silly restrictions, I installed the February 2011 update for Windows Phone--what I call the "pre-update" since it only updates the Windows Phone updater (mull over that one for a bit). And then I installed the first real Windows Phone update, NoDo (for "No Donuts"), which Microsoft now calls the March 2011 update.

Why is this a big deal? Because if you look at Microsoft's official schedule for delivering these updates, there is not a single wireless carrier in the United States that has actually OK'd these updates for release at the time of this writing. (I've reproduced the chart below since it will allegedly change over time.) (Update: Since writing this, I'm hearing that the February update is actually rolling out to HTC HD7 users in the US now.)

Ultimately, NoDo isn't a huge update, which is all the more tragic when you consider how long we've waited: Microsoft completed this update in December, and intended to ship it to users at CES in January. But thanks to its partner agreements, the wireless carriers and hardware makers that also have a stake in the Windows Phone ecosystem took their sweet time testing it; in fact some are allegedly still testing it. (And Microsoft's own device testing also triggered the February update that had to precede it.) So here we are, four months later. And while the update rollout is slowly commencing internationally, it hasn't really happened in the US yet at all.

Unless of course you're willing to bend the rules a bit.

You see, despite Microsoft's best efforts, enterprising hackers have dug into the nooks and crannies of Windows Phone over the past several months. And they've figured out a lot of stuff, far more than I think even Microsoft thought was possible. And while I generally ignore the homebrew stuff--I try to do things as a normal consumer would--in this case, waiting for an update that was completed months ago just didn't sit right with me. And I'd been waiting for a similar amount of time for Microsoft to come through on even the most basic NoDo briefing. Clearly, these guys were never going to do the right thing. So I'm moving forward without them. Which, frankly, has been the case all along anyway.

You can find the instructions I used for installing the February and March updates for Windows Phone 7 on the Windows Phone Hacker web site. I can't guarantee these instructions will work for you, that this process won't ruin your phone, or whatever. I installed this for the same journalistic reasons I always have when looking at and using leaked software: I need to know about it and write about it, and when Microsoft simply won't provide that information on the record, turning to the dark side of the interwebs isn't just the right thing to do, it's the only thing I can do. (Well, I could just ignore it and remain ignorant I guess. But that's not my job.)

With that bit of unnecessary explanation out of the way, I'm not going to reprint the update workaround instructions here, as the original site does a nice enough job given the technical nature of what's required. But I will generally describe what I did. In short, it involves a number of steps.

First is a process called "developer unlocking" your device, in which your phone is set up to accept apps from outside the official Windows Phone Marketplace. The Windows Phone Hacker web site describes this as "jailbreaking" the phone, but in reality, actual developers do this with Microsoft tools so that they can test their own apps on real devices. And that's what I did: I did not use the dubious Chevron WP7 tool described in the article. But the end result is the same.

Next, you install a XAP ("zap", an application package) file on the phone. This file adds a registry editor, which allows you to change the internal configuration of the phone so that it appears to be unlocked, and not tied to AT&T as is my own Samsung Focus. AT&T, as you may have heard, has been very busy since December not allowing Microsoft to deploy any updates to its users; this registry change removes the technical ability of the device to allow that blocking.

Then, you need to download and run a specially made VPN client that lets you appear to be in a different country, in this case Hungary is usually the country of choice for some reason. This removes another blocker from the update delivery scheme, since as of this writing no US-based phones (Update: With the exception of the HTC HD7 now) are supposed to be able to get this update.

Then the silliness really begins. (That we have to jump through such hoops is simply astonishing.) Basically, you put the phone in Airplane mode, connect it to the PC, and attempt to check for updates via the Zune PC software while connected via the VPN. You time the process (in my case it took about 45 seconds). Then, turn Airplane Mode off and run the check for updates process again, this time deftly switching the Airplane Mode button to On just 1 second before the previously-timed amount of time expires. If you do it just right, voila! You have an update, magically. If not, you can try again.

It worked for me on the first try. Others have not been so lucky.

A couple of final points here. First, this process requires a lot of trust in some people you will never meet. Who, exactly, wrote that registry editor and is it safe? And the VPN? Are you kidding me? Who the heck knows what that thing is doing? And what if this update screws up the phone? I can only imagine what the conversation with AT&T support would be like.

So I don't recommend you do this. I'm throwing out the fact that this process is out there, and that it worked for me. I had to hard reset my phone early on when the initial February pre-update wouldn't install, so I had to reinstall all my apps and stuff later on, and that's something to deal with too. But again, for myself, getting this update is necessary: I need to write about it. For you, maybe not so much. In fact, for you, I don't recommend this at all.

That said, if you're technical enough, and just tired of waiting for the simplest of updates, the process is out there if you want. I can't support it, help you with it, or explain how different phones may or may not work differently. I can just tell you that it worked for me on one device, because it did.

Next up, despite Microsoft's best efforts to hide NoDo from the public, I'll discuss what's really changed in this release. Don't hold your breath, it ain't much.

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