Oh, come on, Microsoft: 60 million copies of Windows 8?

Microsoft needs to stop showering us with mumbo-jumbo sales numbers for Windows 8 and show us the activations

Nobody believes that 60 million PCs are currently running Windows 8. Let me get that out of the way right off the bat. The question is whether the 60 million number offered yesterday by Windows Chief Marketing Officer and CFO Tami Reller was a bit on the puffy side or whether it represents an epic case of corporate cognitive dissonance.

I tend to think of it as business as usual: Microsoft's never played straight with Windows sales numbers, at least not in recent history, and there's no reason to believe it's doing so now.

Somehow the sales pace of Windows 7 has become the gold standard by which Windows 8 uptake is being measured. I'm not at all convinced that's a valid measuring stick -- the circumstances surrounding Win8 are so very different -- but looking at Win7 vs. Win8 initial sales figures can be entertaining, if not instructive. 

Right now we have three official data points for Windows 8 license sales.

On Oct. 31, 2012, just days after Windows 8 hit General Availability, Steve Ballmer was quoted at the Build conference as saying that "tens of millions" of copies of Windows 8 had shipped to hardware manufacturing partners, and "more than 4 million upgrade copies" had been sold. If we take him at his word, Microsoft sold at least 24 million copies of Windows 8 that first fateful weekend.

Tami Reller told us in a speech at Credit Suisse on Nov. 27, 2012 that Microsoft had sold 40 million Windows 8 licenses. Then on Jan. 8, she said the number was up to 60 million. In her Nov. 27 speech, Reller gave zero details about what she meant by "sold Windows licenses." In the more recent speech (transcript), she said, "[I]t's similar to -- it's identical, in fact, to how we talked about Windows 7 licenses. So it's OEMs. It's sell-in to OEMs for new PCs as well as upgrades. So, it's upgrades and OEM licenses."

I'll split a few hairs about the upgrades and OEMs later on, but first let's continue with the Windows 7 comparison. With Windows 7, we had several early data points. On Dec. 31, 2009, Microsoft claimed in its quarterly earnings report for FY2010 Q2 that it had sold 60 million Win7 licenses. On March 2, 2010, at the Morgan Stanley Technology Conference, Microsoft claimed it had sold 90 million Windows 7 licenses.

If you do the arithmetic, Windows 7 sold 60 million licenses in the 70 days after General Availability. Windows 8 hit 60 million after 74 days. Those numbers certainly do line up. They line up so well you have to wonder how they're being calculated.

What doesn't track is the rate. If Ballmer was giving us numbers comparable to those provided by Reller, Windows 8 sold about 5 million copies a day for its first five days. Then (if Reller's numbers are right) the rate fell precipitously to 600,000 copies a day for the next month, and 500,000 copies a day for the following six weeks.

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