How Microsoft fudges Windows 8 sales figures

Industry analysts say we'll know more about Windows 8 sales in January, but given Microsoft's well-orchestrated obfuscation, we'll actually know less

I've seen a lot of "analyses" in the technical press about lousy early sales of Windows 8, however none to date are willing to put a number on Windows 8 sales or make a prediction for this quarter. The simple fact is that nobody knows anything about Windows 8 sales. Wait till January, the sages advise, and then we'll know more.

Many of these folks seem to forget that we've seen these machinations before, and we're likely to know less about Windows 8 sales in January than we do now. How is that possible? Microsoft stacks the deck. Legally, and in full conformance with every accounting principle, generally accepted or not, Microsoft has polished its methods for obfuscating initial sales of new Windows versions. We saw the techniques used after the releases of Vista and Windows 7 -- and we'll see them again for Windows 8.

Here's how it works. Again, this is all perfectly legal.

There are two numbers of interest. (1) In January, Microsoft will report its quarterly revenue and expenses for the Windows (and formerly Windows Live) Division. (2) Microsoft may or may not, at its discretion, report the number of Windows 8 and/or Windows RT licenses sold. It's highly unlikely Microsoft will report the number of copies of Windows 8/Windows RT activated -- the number that would most accurately tell us how well Win8 is doing in the marketplace.

First, the quarterly revenue. Microsoft has already "deferred" $540 million in Windows revenue from the second (calendar) quarter of this year, and $1.36 billion from the third quarter. The revenue deferral is attributed to Microsoft's offer to give $14.99 Win8 Pro upgrades to everyone who bought a Windows 7 PC after June 2. In effect, Microsoft is saying that a substantial (but unknown) percentage of the people who bought Windows 7 after June 2 will exercise the option to upgrade to Windows 8; thus, Microsoft won't book the revenue from the Windows 7 sale until they upgrade. Microsoft has promised it will book the revenue when consumers actually upgrade, or on Feb. 28, 2013, whichever comes first.

In other words, the Windows division has $2 billion in revenue coming onto the books no matter how well or poorly Windows 8 sells, and the revenue is stretched over the fourth quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013. For the sake of comparison, in the quarter ending September 2012, the Windows Division booked $3.2 billion in revenue.

See what I mean by fudges?

Second, the number of Windows 8 licenses "sold" has always been a squishy number. One of the best examples of how the number can squish came last month, when Steve Ballmer was quoted as saying that "more than 4 million upgrade copies" of Windows 8 had been sold in the first weekend of general availability, along with "tens of millions" of copies of Windows 8 going out to OEMs.

The first quote begs for definitions of the terms "sold" and "upgrade." I think it's fair to assume that 4 million people didn't pull out their credit cards and pay for a $40 online upgrade over the weekend, but I may be overly cynical. I will note in passing that anyone who bought a Windows 7 PC over the weekend, in some respects "paid" for an upgrade (see the "revenue deferral" argument), and companies that renewed their volume licenses over the weekend had Windows 8 slipped in for the ride.

As for shipping tens of millions of copies of anything to OEMs -- I can just see the truckloads of bits going to the loading docks at Lenovo, HP, and Dell -- we've seen those kinds of magic numbers before, when Ballmer was trying to convince the world that Microsoft had sold millions of copies of Windows Phone 7. In fact, Microsoft had "sold" the copies of Windows to manufacturers and phone companies, which, in turn, had a difficult time "selling" the products to breathing, paying customers.

This brings me to activation numbers. Microsoft knows darn well how many copies of Windows 8/Windows RT it's sold. Why won't the company tell us the number of copies that have been activated? If there's a rousing story to be told about Windows 8/Windows RT uptake, it's right there in the activation numbers. Anything else is just blowing smoke.

Will we know more about Windows 8 sales in January? I doubt it. Given Microsoft's well-orchestrated fudginess, I think we'll actually know less.

This story, "How Microsoft fudges Windows 8 sales figures," 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.

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