Windows Phone shipments rocket 156% in a year. Are the numbers lying?

Windows Phone shipments leaped 156% in the latest quarter, by far the biggest growth percentage of any smartphone OS. Even the normally staid IDC called that "amazing." But are the numbers really as good as they look?

IDC reports that in the third quarter 9.5 million Windows Phone shipped, up from 3.7 million a year previous, for a growth rate of 156%. IDC called the growth "amazing" and noted:

"Granted, volumes started from a small base of 3.7 million units a year ago and overall market share is still less than five percent. But Microsoft's efforts, with Nokia's support behind it, helped drive the platform into multiple tiers and price points."

Windows Phone market share jumped as well, to 3.7% from from 2% a year previous. For the quarter, Android solidified its dominance of the market, with an 81% market share, up from 74.9% a year previous. iOS was in second place, with a 12.9% market share. But that was down from 14.4% a year previous. That drop in iOS market share is particularly good news for Microsoft, who most likely is eying eventually taking over second place. BlackBerry, meanwhile, had a 1.7% market share, down from 4.1% a year previous.

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The news certainly looks bright for Windows Phone -- big growth in the number of phones shipped, big growth in market share, and overtaking BlackBerry, which continues to tank. So what's not to like?

The potential bad news appears when you take a closer look at the numbers. Because sometimes numbers do lie. 

Take a look at the 156% growth rate. As IDC say, the "amazing" growth rate is possible because Windows Phone started at such a low point. When you start that low, even small increases in shipments lead to big growth rates. If you just look at the raw numbers -- total phones shipped -- the numbers don't look as good. Looked at that way, Windows Phone is actually falling further behind both Android and iOS.

Here's how the numbers look when you compare the total units shipped a year ago with the most recent quarter:

  • Android, up 71.7 million units to 211.6 million
  • iOS, up 6.9 million units to 33.8 million
  • Windows Phone, up 5.8 units to 9.5 million
  • BlackBerry, down 3.2 units to 4.5 million

That means that during the year of Windows Phone's "amazing" 156% growth, it actually fell much further behind Android in actual units shipped, and even further behind iOS in units shipped, even though iOS percent market share slipped. 

And keep in mind that iOS shipments were probably smaller than normal because people were waiting for the new iPhones to ship. IDC notes that the decrease in its market share is:

"...likely due to soft demand in the weeks leading up to the launch of iOS 7 smartphones. Still, if the 9 million units sold during the last week of September is any indication of future adoption, iOS stands to reap another record quarter in terms of volumes, market share, and year-over-year growth."

So Windows Phone may fall even further behind iOS in the coming quarters. There's also another potential issue for Windows Phone -- it has essentially become a one-vendor smartphone OS. IDC notes that Windows Phone's growth is:

"...a result primarily driven by the support of Nokia. By itself, Nokia accounted for 93.2% of all the Windows Phone-powered smartphones shipped during the quarter, marking a new milestone in the company's short history on the Microsoft platform. Participation from other vendors, meanwhile, still seemed a mixed bag with more vendors participating from a year ago, but volumes still far behind Nokia's own."

Given Microsoft's purchase of the Nokia handset division, it's not likely Microsoft is going to get much support from other vendors.

What does all of this mean? Yes, a 156% growth rate is very nice, as is an increase to 3.7% market share from 2% market share. But Microsoft shouldn't be celebrating yet. In terms of real numbers, Windows Phone still has a long way to go.

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