Windows Phone 7 sales numbers confound -- again

Did Nokia really sell more than a million Windows Phone 7-based Lumia smartphones in Q4, or is it déjà vu all over again with inflated estimates? Microsoft's not saying

It's like deja vu all over again.

Bloomberg's average of 22 analyst estimates pegs the total number of Windows Phone 7-equipped Nokia Lumia smartphones sold in the fourth quarter at between 800,000 and 2 million -- with 1.3 million given as the most likely number. That figure, according to Bloomberg, means Nokia "may have sold enough units last year to help rebuild investor confidence in the Finnish company, which lost $19 billion in market value in 2011."

It's certainly crowing material for Windows Phone 7-addled bloggers. Proof positive, we're led to believe, that Microsoft is about to reclaim its rightful position as the third largest ape in the mobile phone cage.

But every time I see that number I'm reminded of what we were told a year ago -- and the scenario that ultimately played out. If your attention span doesn't go back that far, permit me to remind you what happened.

Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 in Europe in October 2010. It hit the United States in November. On Dec. 21, 2010, Microsoft announced it had sold 1.5 million copies of Windows Phone 7 in the first six weeks of availability. On Jan. 27, 2011, Bloomberg reported "Microsoft Corp. said it shipped more than 2 million copies of the Windows Phone 7 operating system last quarter, as the company tried to reverse sliding smartphone market share."

"Customer satisfaction for the product is at 93 percent and brand awareness has jumped 22 points to 66 percent since it was released," Greg Sullivan, a senior product manager at Microsoft, said in an interview. "For now, Microsoft is measuring success more in terms of customer feedback than raw sales figures," said Sullivan, who predicted "sales will accelerate."

As events unfolded, the sales figures cited were in fact the number of Windows Phone 7-equipped mobile devices shipped to retailers and carriers. They weren't "sold" in the sense that somebody, uh, actually bought them.

I don't know if Microsoft ever reported the number of Windows 7 phone activated in the fourth quarter of 2010, but I can guarantee the number was much smaller than 2 million -- probably two orders of magnitude fewer, if you subtract the number of phones bought by employees and relatives.

Now we're getting fed the same kind of numbers, in a painfully similar slipshod manner, almost a year later.

Nokia's Lumia 800 went on sale in a few European countries in November 2011. The Lumia 710 hit Russia and some parts of Asia in December. I predict the prognosticators were counting Lumia smartphones sent to retailers and carriers, not the number actually sold to consumers.

The only organization that can tell us how many Windows Phone 7 devices were activated is Microsoft itself. And as usual, Microsoft's saying nothing. Nokia may give us some sales figures when it reports earnings on Jan. 26, but don't look for actual Windows Phone 7 activation numbers.

For now, I'll stay skeptical. Very skeptical.

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