Ballmer and Bezos's magic numbers: what do they mean?

Kindle Fire
The cut-price Kindle Fire sold hemhemhem this week.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer's in a sharing mood: he's told investors that thanks to Windows Phone 8, Microsoft sold four times as many phones as it did this time last year.

That's great, isn't it?

Isn't it?

It turns out that if you ask Steve Ballmer for actual figures, he gets all shifty. "How many phones did you sell in total, then?" you might ask. "Look! A unicorn, flying past the window!" Ballmer would reply. "Okay then," you'd say, changing tack. "How many did you sell last year?" Ballmer would pretend to recall, only to shout "Over there! Rihanna! Naked!" and throw himself through a plate glass window.

There are some seriously selective statistics coming out of Seattle, and Microsoft isn't the only offender.

All surface, no substance

Microsoft's statistics were as interesting for what they didn't say as for what they did. Take Windows 8, for example:

Ballmer said that the number of available Windows 8 PCs had reached 1,500. For all we know, that might be the sum total of new Windows PCs sold too: those figures weren't disclosed, and neither were sales of the Surface tablet.

Similarly we know that Microsoft has sold 40 million Windows 8 licences, but we don't know who those licences were sold to.

Were they sold to actual customers, or to OEMs? Are those licences being used, or are they in a shipping container somewhere? We'd ask Ballmer, but he's pointing at something behind us and making an OMG face.

If you think Microsoft's being selective with its numbers, Amazon's even worse. According to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and private space travel company Blue Origin, the firm tripled its sales day record on Black Friday, selling an incredible hemhemhem compared to last year's fiddlededee.

The discounted Kindle Fire sold feefifofum, a huge improvement over last year's doobiedoobiedoo, and overall sales of the Kindle family exceeded one bibbetyboo.

They're all doing it deliberately, of course, because comparisons tell a story: Windows Phone is four times more successful, Amazon's sales are three times higher... but it's one made of hot air and hype, all "wheeee!" and no "what".

If we don't know what we're comparing things to, if we don't know the numbers that Windows Phone have quadrupled or that Amazon has trebled, then we're being sold PR puffery, a story without any substance.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.