Mobile Windows market share stabilizes, but it could be too late to save the patient

Microsoft's share of U.S. smartphone market has stopped falling -- too bad Microsoft won't say which of its devices are selling

For the past year, Microsoft's share of the U.S. smartphone market has been falling like a rock, but in the past three months, it's stabilized. That's a notable achievement, in no small part because the market itself has grown so much, rising 2 to 3 percent per month.

To understand comScore's numbers, you have to take into consideration just what they're measuring. Every month, comScore publishes three-month moving averages of smartphone market share. It surveys 30,000 smartphone owners in the United States, age 13 and over, and asks them which phone they use.

Mobile Windows market share stabilizes, but it could be too late to save the patient

As you can see, the lagging-three-month averages for RIM and Symbian (and before that, Palm) have headed south. No surprise. The percentage of people who claimed to use an Apple phone has gone up slightly, from 24.2 percent in August of last year to 27.3 percent in August of this year. Google's gone through the roof, from 19.6 percent to 43.7 percent in August this year.

The surprising number? Microsoft's three-month-average market share plummeted from 10.8 percent in August last year to 5.8 percent in May of this year -- painfully close to falling by half -- but since May, the losses have stabilized, with Windows running at 5.7 to 5.8 percent of the market.

Though comScore doesn't publish worldwide smartphone numbers, in the five leading European markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom), Microsoft dropped from 11.5 percent of the market in July 2010 to 6.7 percent of the market in July 2011.

Don't jump out of your seat and start chanting, "Developers, developers, developers," just yet. The comScore numbers tell an important tale -- how many people report owning a Windows-powered phone -- but there are two other numbers that warrant attention.

Online media measuring company Net Applications measures how often mobile devices are used to access one of its 40,000 tracked sites. I've talked about their NetMarketShare reports many times, most recently in describing how Internet Explorer is rapidly falling to 50 percent of desktop browser use and how the "iPad effect" has greatly increased mobile browser usage numbers.

The sample base for comScore and Net Applications varies significantly. For starters, comScore asks U.S. smartphone owners which phone they own. Net Applications looks at all websites, all over the world, and reports on which operating systems are being used to power the browsers.

When you look at the latest Net Applications numbers, you see a completely different story from the one at comScore. According to Net Applications, of the mobile and tablet operating systems banging against their 40,000 tracked sites, only one-half of 1 percent of the hits came from mobile devices running Windows Mobile or Windows Phone. The lion's share of mobile Internet access comes from iOS at 53 percent, Java at 21 percent, and Android at 16 percent.

More than that, the Windows share of online access is still falling. In August 2010, Net Applications reports, Windows Mobile drove 1.5 percent of all Web access. By August 2011, the share fell to 0.6 percent, and in September, it was under 0.5 percent.

So is Windows on the mobile platform growing, stagnating, or still headed to Hades in a handbasket? How does one reconcile comScore's 5.6 percent self-reported U.S. handset market share with Net Applications' measured 0.5 percent international Web access? Tough questions, and I don't see any clear answers. But I have a few observations.

It's possible that iPhone and Android users just surf the Web one or two orders of magnitude more frequently than Windows Phone and Windows Mobile users. That doesn't seem likely, but it's possible. It's also possible that Web surfing on the iPad has skewed all of the numbers completely out of whack. I don't think that accounts for all of the discrepancy, though, because iOS usage is "only" at 53 percent.

While comScore doesn't break out old Windows Mobile counts from new Windows Phone counts, Net Applications does. According to Net Applications, Windows Phone -- even now -- accounts for less internet access than Windows Mobile. Surprising, but true -- it's entirely possible that comScore is seeing and counting a lot of old Windows Mobile phones that aren't being used online very frequently.

The only way I can figure to make some sense out of the numbers is to take into account how many new Windows Phone devices are being activated. It's relatively easy to estimate roughly how many iOS and Android devices are coming onstream -- Apple and Google brag about their numbers from time to time. But there hasn't been a hint from Microsoft.

Last week, Windows Phone head Andy Lees spoke with AllThingsD about Windows Phone. "We're not making specific predictions but I think that our momentum is going to build," he said. He gave us no numbers, past, present or future.

With Android activations in June running 500,000 per day and iOS activations running an estimated 350,000-plus per day (Tim Cook says Apple sold "more than 33 million iOS devices" in Q3), Microsoft has a long way to catch up. Whether Mango's up to the job is anyone's guess -- "guess" being the operative term until we get hard numbers.

This story, "Mobile Windows market share stabilizes, but it could be too late to save the patient," was originally published at 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 on Twitter.