Microsoft's Windows Phone Sales Silence Speaks Volumes

Microsoft's quarterly financial results today make for great reading if you're a shareholder, with a record $20.9bn in revenue, but are less reassuring if you're a Windows Phone fan. The big software company broke down Windows 7 licensing numbers, spilled its Bing search share and gleefully detailed Xbox 360 and Kinect sensor sales, but Microsoft's smartphone OS merited little more than a vague mention of "a lot of excitement." This was Microsoft's most obvious opportunity to hammer home whatever dent Windows Phone had made in the mobile market; that it didn't leaves us more than a little concerned.

Market share for Windows Phone is always something Microsoft has been coy about. So far, we've mainly been forced to go on unofficial figures by stats companies like Gartner and Nielsen, with the latter saying earlier this week that Windows Phone held 1.3-percent of the US market in 2011. There's a little positive news for Microsoft in the stats too – in the final quarter of last year, 1.4-percent of new US smartphone buyers opted for a Windows Phone device – but it's not the snowballing demand that might have been hoped for.

Microsoft has turned to Nokia for its smartphone salvation, a deal that has been roundly discussed, criticized and – not least by the Symbian faithful – complained about. The Finns responded with three devices, the Lumia 710, 800 and 900, and plenty of hyperbole, Nokia CEO describing them as the "first real Windows Phones." Accurate sales figures from Nokia, though, have been similarly MIA, with the company doing little to counter suggestions that carriers have been underwhelmed by demand and disappointed with the proportion of returns.

Ironically, Microsoft's big success in mobile looks to be Android; the company has inked a string of patent licensing deals over the past eighteen months, with companies including Samsung, HTC and LG, and only Motorola Mobility remains as the significant hold-out. Details on exactly how much Microsoft makes from each Android device sale are unclear, though estimates peg it anywhere between $10 and $30 per handset. That's not something it can quote to paint a rosy picture of Windows Phone, however.

On one level, it's no great issue that Windows Phone sales aren't contributing sufficiently to Microsoft's bottom line that the company believes they're worth mentioning. After all, revenue is up 5-percent year-on-year nonetheless. Yet, as an integral part of the company's "three screens and a cloud" strategy, Microsoft can't afford to let its smartphone OS slip. As the most-used devices in our modern arsenal, a phone represents not just a mobile platform but a gateway to app sales, location-based advertising and more.

Our lingering hope is that Microsoft takes the wrap off of Windows Phone stats come Mobile World Congress 2012 late next month. The platform made its sales debut in Europe back in Q4 2010; perhaps Microsoft will save some big numbers for its next European appearance. That also gives Nokia time to shift a few more Lumia, and Microsoft an opportunity to showcase the new Windows Phones its other OEM partners have come up with.

There's only so long this air of mystery can hold out. Windows Phone no longer has its "new on the block" excuse to fall back on, and sales figure reticence is looking increasingly like Microsoft is hiding some very bad news.