If you've been following the headlines or watching the 10 o'clock news, you might have come away with the impression that Microsoft sold 900,000 Surface RT tablets in the fourth quarter of 2012. Balderdash -- we saw the same kind of obfuscating numbers floating around in December 2010, when Microsoft announced it had "sold" 1.5 million copies of Windows Phone 7 in the first six weeks of availability, and in January 2011, when the number jumped to 2 million.
We never did find out how many real, breathing, money-toting customers bought Windows Phone 7 phones -- Microsoft failed to release the numbers -- but an educated guess says the actual tally of Windows 7 phones sold by January 2011 was one or two orders of magnitude smaller than the Microsoft-announced figures.
This time, there's one big difference: Microsoft isn't generating or repeating the numbers. They're coming from various news sources. Best as I can tell, Microsoft has been completely mum on Surface RT sales, both officially and off the record. More than that, not one single retailer has spilled the beans on Surface RT sales.
Here's what we know.
Yesterday IDC issued a press release that estimated Microsoft had shipped "just shy of 900,000 units into the channel" during the fourth quarter. That's where the 900,000 number originated. IDC was quite cautious and very precise in not saying that those units were sold -- in any sense of the term.
Two days ago, Cnet quoted iSuppli analyst Rhoda Alexander as saying Microsoft shipped about 1.25 million units into the channel, but sales "were significantly lower, maybe on the order of 55 to 60 percent of that figure" -- leading to an estimate of, say, 690,000 to 750,000 tablets sold. Alexander goes on to say that she's seen "little evidence of continued production of the Microsoft RT device," and calls the Surface RT return rate "very high." Why the high return rates? "It seems to be linked in a lot of cases to a steep learning curve of the [Windows 8] OS -- which is not necessarily intuitive."
You have to wonder how many people received Surface RT tablets as a holiday gift, fired them up, discovered that their new Windows tablet doesn't run Windows programs, and took the machine back. I'm reminded of the ancient TV commercials where a little old lady returns a tire by throwing it through a plate glass window.
Forget about steep Metro learning curves. Think more about dashed expectations. The terms "bait" and "switch" come to mind. Here's a trivia question for you: Which Windows isn't Windows? Follow-on: How do you explain that to your grandmother?
Of course, we have no figures at all about returns. But the iSuppli numbers suggest that more than half a million Surface RT machines are sitting in warehouses, unsold, gathering dust. In addition, an unknown number have been -- or will be -- returned, over and above that half-million. No wonder Microsoft isn't making any more of them (if the rumors are true).
My ongoing scan of all of the online Surface RT ordering sites worldwide -- Microsoft Stores in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany; Staples and Best Buy in the United States; Suning in China; Harvey Norman in Australia -- has turned up exactly zero "out of stock" notices. Surface RT, it seems, is in abundant supply online.
I just checked Best Buy's store locator system, looking for Surface RT machines in stock in brick-and-mortar stores in the United States. Best Buy lists many stores in the Seattle, New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Indianapolis, and San Antonio areas that have the Surface RT in stock. A few Best Buys in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose have the Surface RT. But the online store locator also shows many (perhaps most) Best Buys don't have Surface RTs in stock, with very few in the Jacksonville, Fla. area, for example, and none at all in Denver.
At $599 with a keyboard, Surface RT has to be a tough sell at Best Buy, especially with iPads just down the counter.
What do you want to bet that the final tally of total Surface RT units sold -- not given away to employees or reviewers, not offered at steep discounts, taking into account returns -- comes in around 400,000 or 500,000?
What do you want to bet that we'll never know the real number?
This story, "No, Microsoft didn't sell 900,000 Surface RT tablets," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.