Phoney statistics

Everybody must have heard of Disraeli’s famous line about there being ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, but I’ve always preferred A E Housman’s jibe that statistics in the hands of an engineer are like a lamp post to a drunk – used more for support than illumination.

This is certainly the way they get used by the modern PR agency. Take for example the statement ‘Global shipments of smart mobile devices up 75 per cent year-on-year in Q3 2005’, which was the headline on a press release recently put out by the market analyst Canalys. The body copy of this release included the table of figures, shown here as Table 1, and they do indeed show something going up by 75 per cent year-on-year. But was that something smartphone sales?

The figures supplied by Canalys show Nokia selling a record 7.1 million smartphones in this period, up 142 per cent year-on-year, and spookily enough Nokia’s financial results for the same period show exactly the same figures for its increase in smartphone sales. Overall sales figures, however, show that sales by value of mobile devices had gone up by only 15 per cent. The problem is that what Nokia calls a smartphone and what Palm, HP or HTC call smartphones are very different things. To Nokia, anything that runs the Symbian operating system is a smartphone, which includes older devices such as the 6600 as well as up-to-date devices such as the N70 or N90. A full listing of Symbian-based phones can be seen at www.symbian.com, and it’s a very long list by now.

These days, there’s certainly a real sense in which any phone is ‘smart’ compared to those dumb bricks we used to lug around ten years ago. They do all now have some PIM (personal information manager) capabilities, typically including the ability to synchronise diary and contact information with Outlook. I couldn’t find any hard figures about what percentage of Nokia users have ever tried using the firm’s diary synchronisation software, but my suspicion is that it would be very low indeed – these phones are sold as fancy camera phones that can also play polyphonic ringtones and MP3 music files, not as portable diaries and task-list managers.

Palm Treos and Windows Mobile-based smartphones, however, are very different. They aim much higher and, although they mostly do have cameras and MP3 players included, these are treated as bonus functions rather than the main reason for the device’s existence. Lumping Nokia’s slick candy bars in with proper PDA-style smartphones doesn’t seem to me to constitute a homogenous market sector.

If you subtract the Nokia figures (and, to be fair, the Motorola ones as well) from those smartphone sales, as I’ve done in Table 2, a very different story emerges. Smart mobile device sales have still gone up, but by a much more modest 17 per cent. Palm and HP’s market share have both dropped, but BlackBerry and Other (presumably referring to devices such as the Xda made by Taiwanese conglomerate HTC) have gone up. Both HP and Palm say that sales are migrating from their older tablet-format PDAs to Treos and Windows Mobile-based smartphones – my guess is that most Palm users upgrade from their old m515 to a Treo, while Windows Mobile users replace their old iPAQ with one of the new Mobile Messenger series or an Xda. This is much closer to the traditional PDA market, if somewhat smaller – still a growing market overall but nowhere near as spectacular as that original headline would suggest.

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