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Microsoft details new Windows Phone 8 update, but real fixes won't come until 2014

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Windows Phone stock
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Microsoft published details of its upcoming Windows Phone 8 update on Thursday, revealing the minor changes that are due to roll out shortly. Known as General Distribution Release 2 (GDR2), the update includes fixes to Xbox Music to provide accurate metadata, the restoration of the FM radio feature, a Data Sense app that's not exclusive to certain carriers, and a new option to set a Lens app as the default camera. There are some HTML5 updates in Internet Explorer, improved Skype and Lync stability, and Gmail CardDAV / CalDAV support, but overall the changes are very minor for an update eight months after the original Windows Phone 8 release.

According to sources familiar with Microsoft's Windows Phone plans, the company is in a "shut up and ship" mode. We're told that the lack of significant changes is due to the focus on Windows Phone's "Blue" update. The future update, expected in early 2014, looks set to include a notification center, improved multitasking, and changes to built-in apps. We understand that Microsoft is considering back porting some of the "Blue" features, including a rotation lock option, to a GDR3 update due later this year. Any ported features are said to support future hardware arriving later this year, and sometimes at the request of specific phone makers like Nokia. In comparison, Windows 8.1 includes a whole host of changes and feature additions designed for tablets and PCs that is expected to be delivered in late August — just 10 months after the original Windows 8 release.

Bugs have delayed update changes

We've learned that Microsoft had planned to roll out a number of Windows Phone updates more frequently, but delays in testing new chipsets and bugs in some of the GDR updates have slowed down feature additions. One particular bug with unbranded devices not sold by carriers is said to have affected the way a handset is identified on a network. We're told that Microsoft had a hard time fixing this particular problem, resulting in delays to other planned work.

Updates are designed to include features requested by phone makers

We're told that most of the focus for Windows Phone software improvements is related to hardware release and refreshes. The future GDR3 update will include support for 5- and 6-inch Windows Phones with 1080p resolutions, and quad-core chipsets. These devices will debut later this year, and Microsoft has been working closely with OEMs to ensure Windows Phone includes the hardware support required. Microsoft revealed on Thursday that together with Nokia it "shared early builds of software and hardware" to ready the Lumia 1020. "I wrote more than 10 pages of feedback myself on the Nokia Pro Camera app as it was being developed," says Microsoft's Joe Belfiore.

The message from Microsoft on Windows Phone updates is mixed. While the company promised a year ago that it was creating an enthusiasts program to provide early access to updates, Microsoft has yet to detail when it plans to deliver it. The program was said to "keep your phone fresher than ever before." For now though, all update signs point to early 2014. Microsoft confirmed it's planning a "feature pack" update in the first half of next year that will include some enterprise improvements and VPN support. Unfortunately, it's not sharing further information about any other additions. It leaves Nokia and other phone makers having to rely on hardware selling points, knowing full well that the Windows Phone software and ecosystem still lags the competition.