Real Windows Phone 7 Numbers Still a Question Mark

Since the launch of Windows Phone 7, a fun way to pass the time has been to try to guess the number of devices that Microsoft (s msft) has sold. Today, we got a sense of that — although without a definitive answer on end-user sales — when the company said Windows Phone 7 manufacturers have sold 1.5 million of the devices to operators and retailers since the launch last month.

While not a blockbuster hit, that’s a decent number, and it provides a counterpoint of sorts to early indications that the new phones were not selling well. That said, however, it’s still impossible to tell how many phones are sitting on shelves and how many have been activated. As Kevin noted last week, retailers and operators have stepped up their buy-one-get-one free offers for Windows Phone 7 devices rather quickly for a new phone. Kevin also reported that data-analytics company Chitika said Windows Phone 7 devices were barely registering on its network. So it’s unclear if 1.5 million reflects early bets by operators on WP7 or if people are really giving the new platform a try.

Microsoft, for its part, hasn’t had the best of luck with partner Dell (s dell), which has struggled to get its Dell Venue Pro WP7 phone out on time. There were some early reports of sell-outs of devices, although that was apparently temporary.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft seems pleased by the early results, saying Windows Phone 7 is off to a promising start. Though it’s not really a fair comparison, Apple (s aapl) sold 1 million iPhones to users in 74 days when it launched with AT&T (s t) in 2007. Achim Berg, Microsoft’s VP of business and marketing for Windows Phones, said in a Microsoft blog interview that customer satisfaction has been good, and the launch of Windows Phone 7 has been similar to other first-generation mobile platforms. “We’re comfortable with where we are, and we are here for the long run,” Berg said. “Windows Phone 7 is just the beginning.  Our opportunity is to make sure people get to play with a Windows Phone. Once they do, they love it. This is very important for us.”

Berg makes it sound as though all will be well if Windows Phone 7 can pull off a similar launch to other platforms like iOS and Android (s goog). But the company is already three years behind; it needs to do more than just match the early performance of rivals. At some point, it has to catch up or even pass the pack in terms of overall momentum, and that means showing that consumers are really embracing the phone, but it’s difficult to tell if that’s actually happening.

Microsoft does seem to be getting good developer support, although as we’ve mentioned, some of it is paid for. IDC just announced that Windows Phone 7 has gotten to 4,000 apps in two months, putting it on a faster initial pace than Android. Microsoft said it has 18,000 developers in total building apps for its marketplace, and a Millennial Ad survey of publishers said Windows Phone 7 was the second most popular new platform they expected to support in 2011.

If Microsoft can’t push sales up substantially over time, however, that early developer support likely won’t continue. Developers are still guided by numbers, and if there isn’t a market for selling a lot of Windows Phone 7 apps, they’ll hold off for when sales warrant their time. Putting out the number of devices shipped to operators and retailers doesn’t really instill the same kind of confidence that end-user sales or activation numbers would. Until Microsoft can do that and show some real adoption momentum, the future of Windows Phone 7 will remain a question mark.

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