Irrational numbers: Nonsense over Windows Phone sales figures, from everywhere

This week, both Nokia and Microsoft released earnings statements, and while most all of the numbers in both reports were meant to spin the truth more than reveal it, a few numbers did jump out. One such figure showed Nokia’s sales of Windows Phones actually dropping in the last three months of 2013, with both Nokia and Nokia Nordisk trotting out charts to show the dip:

Tech journalists, eager for any kind of a real number to report on, jumped on the story. “Nokia sales plummet ahead of Microsoft takeover” said PC World; Forbes went even further, saying “Windows Phone Endangered By Nokia’s Decreasing Lumia Smartphone Sales“. While Nokia may have had its own reasons for making such graphic note of the dip in sales (wanting to look like selling off its phones business was the right thing to do, for one, and deflecting  inspection of its remaining businesses might have been another), it turns out that Microsoft apparently isn’t too happy to have the tech press focus on how Windows Phone sales are heading downward.

Today, Windows Phone VP Joe Belfiore took to Twitter to try to spin things back in Microsoft’s favor:

So is Belfiore calling Nokia liars?

Well, maybe, but maybe not.  Part of the problem here is that there are about as many types of “sales” as there are charts to graph them. What Nokia reported was “units shipped”. This is often called sales “into the channel”, and it means that Nokia reported phones sold to retailers and resellers, but not sales to end users (as Nokia doesn’t sell directly to consumers, that’s not how they make their money).

Belfiore is reporting something completely different: activations. Those are instances of someone taking a phone home from the store and activating it, an actual end-user sale.

It’s entirely possible, in fact, that at least some of those activated Lumia phones were sold to retailers and resellers back at the end of Nokia’s Q3, and then activated “in increasing numbers” during the holidays, making both Nokia’s numbers and Belfiore’s technically correct, although certainly confusing to consumers and the tech press (which may very well be the point).

It’s also worth noting that except for a few high end models, Nokia didn’t release any new models to drive sales for the holidays, having expended its inventory of new phones earlier in the year.  Was that because of poor Windows Phone sales overall, or the upcoming sale of the phones business, or poor planning on either Microsoft’s or Nokia’s, or both, or what, exactly?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get to the truth of technology sales figures, especially when spinning the numbers sets the tech press into such a frenzy. The truth is, Windows Phones sold better this year than they did last year, but nowhere near what either Apple or Android sold.  Spin that however you like.