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Branded phones and software updates

Why some people can update the firmware in their phones and not others

One comment you'll see frequently on the Nokia discussion forums is something like "Version x.y.z of the firmware for my phone has been released by Nokia. My phone only has version a.b.c in it and Nokia Software Updater is telling me that there are no updates for my phone. Why?"

Unfortunately, it's more complicated than at first sight because mobile phone manufacturers (including Nokia) have had to cave in to the whims of mobile network operators in order to maintain sales.

If you buy a phone direct from Nokia online or from a third party vendor without a contract (what we call "SIM-free") and therefore pay the full price for it, then you'll get the phone as it was originally designed by Nokia. This is sometimes referred to as a "vanilla" handset because it is plain and has had nothing done to it. On the other hand, if you get your handset at a reduced price, if not free, from a mobile network operator then you will have a "branded" handset.

So, what's the difference between a branded handset and a vanilla handset other than the purchase price?

On the outside there is little to no difference. Orange UK and France will have a small orange square logo printed on the fascia of phones they supply, the T-Mobile UK branded N95 simply has their stylised ··T··Mobile·· printed on the battery cover. On the inside, however, there's a world of difference.

Nokia allows mobile network operators to modify the firmware (software embedded in the phone that makes it work) that is programmed into branded handsets. The reasons for doing this are multiple but they all boil down to ways of protecting the operator's revenue streams, which is understandable in that the operator has just "given" the user a handset otherwise worth potentially hundreds of pounds. This also explains why operators sign you up for 12 or 18 months − they're not going to let you disappear after just handing over some pricey equipment to you!

Things that operators change in the firmware include:

So, in short, while it may look the same as a vanilla handset, a branded handset is in fact a means for the operator to advertise to you and to those around you while restricting what you can do with it. How kind of them.

Given that branded firmware is something that is based on the original Nokia firmware and has subsequently been altered by the mobile network operator, users of phones that include the branded firmware (i.e. most users of phones supplied by the mobile network operator) have to wait for the operator to supply updates, even if the updates are ultimately distributed by Nokia through the Nokia Software Updater program. This means that updates only come out when your operator is good and ready to release them. The official language is that you get the update "as soon as the operator has approved it". Translated into English, this actually means "whenever the operator can be bothered to pull its finger out and modify the vanilla firmware". Bear in mind that this might never happen since operators don't really want you to update your existing phones, they want you to get new phones (and renew your contract, of course).

How does the Nokia Software Updater know whether your handset is a vanilla or branded handset?

Embedded in the memory of your phone is a piece of information called the "Product Code". You can also see it printed on the label inside the battery compartment of your phone. The Product Code identifies the model of the phone, the operator that supplied it or whether it's a vanilla handset, and the part of the world where it was sold. The Product Code is not something that the end user can change with the software provided by Nokia.

The Nokia Software Updater does, however, read the product code when you proceed with the update, and then asks Nokia's servers "what firmware and language packs go with this Product Code?". For example, as of writing this, if you have an N95 supplied by T-Mobile UK, its product code is 0546659. When NSU asks Nokia's servers what the latest firmware to go with that product code is, it gets the answer "14.0.001". However, if its product code is that of a vanilla N95 Plum sold in the EURO1 zone (0536062), the answer returned is "30.0.015". Same hardware, different results because of different product codes. You can see this in action by visiting the Nokia software update page.

When you see the announcement of a new firmware version on Nokia's site, this refers to the firmware that can be installed into vanilla handsets, not into branded handsets. If you want updated software for a branded handset you must pressure the mobile network operator that supplied the handset in the first place. Don't expect miracles. The public-facing personnel of mobile operators are able to answer basic questions to do with accessing voicemail or how to send a text message, but anything more closely-related to the technical specifications of the phones or the network infrastructure is beyond them and the scripting systems they use to guide the users through diagnostics. Most of the time they do not know when firmware updates are meant to be made available − that's if they know what firmware is in the first place.

Long story short, if your handset is branded then you're stuck with old software until your network operator decides to update it, if ever it does. Don't blame Nokia for this. They are not responsible for the cavalier attitude that some mobile network operators display towards their clients.

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