This rant isn't a long-coming, deep-think sort of article. It is, however, at least mildly timely. Soon, Apple will tell us how many people have bought an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus (or pre-ordered one) in the first weekend of sales. Or maybe they won't, if sales are down versus last year (because Apple). They'll also round it to the nearest million units, because something-something-sellthrough delay blah blah regional reporting issues, etcetera.
Surprisingly, for being the world's most notoriously secretive company, Apple is still among the most open about device sales - even though that's saying very, very little. Every fiscal quarter, we get to hear how many iPhones, iPads, and Macs Apple has shipped. Granted, they're in gross. Model by model and month by month breakdowns are not provided. Most other phone and tablet manufacturers unsurprisingly merely try to meet the incredibly low bar Apple has set here, and maybe occasionally will break out per-model sales for pre-orders or sales for the first month a device is being sold, because it will invariably be the best-selling month ever for that specific device.
Many in the industry chalk this up to the highly-competitive, clandestine nature of the tech business. The more information you provide, the more information your competitors have to work with in order to outmaneuver you on future products. And that sounds great because it makes some form of logical sense to the part of our brain that doesn't really actually consider things for more than 5 seconds, like why a Pumpkin Spice Latte tastes nothing like "pumpkin" and yet is somehow appropriately named. Here's the thing: that's all almost definitely complete bullshit, because only the tech industry really seems to care about guarding sales figures like state secrets.
Carmakers produce some of the most technologically-advanced, capital-intensive things-you-will-ever-buy as a consumer. Products that take years, often many, to develop and plan. They're also hugely competitive, and sales of niche vehicles may number in the hundreds worldwide per month. And yet: you don't see Porsche, quite frankly the Apple of car companies, hiding sales figures like some scared little kid at the science fair with the smallest baking soda volcano just because they only flip a few-hundred examples of a given model each month. If you search "porsche north america sales july 2015," the first result on Google is an article on Porsche's website in which they report exactly how many cars they sold in July 2015 in North America. For the record, it was 4,730, and a depressing 370 of those were Panameras, because 370 people apparently hate their money or don't have eyes. If you look at BMW, they break it down in even more excruciating detail - they're willing to admit they sold 3, as in, one, two, three, Mini Cooper Clubmans in North America in July 2015 (the Clubman is discontinued, but the point stands). They also sold 6,011 X5s because America absolutely cannot stop loving big SUVs no matter how hard it tries.
So, why do carmakers bust out these detailed figures when, gasp, their competitors could see them?! Because it turns out that it's pretty easy to deduce when a product is successful regardless of whether or not you actually sold 6,011 of them versus a third-party analyst firm's estimate of 5,000-7,000, since either figure will probably lead you to the same conclusion. Sure, car OEMs may manipulate sales figures sometimes by combining multiple models into a single sales figure (as Porsche does with the 918, by mixing it into 911 sales, which makes no sense), but generally-speaking, most car companies have zero issue regularly telling us all how many cars they sell and which cars they are. They also don't seem to care that their competitors have this information.
And that leads us to our question of the day: why don't phone manufacturers break out detailed sales statistics when there's no real evidence this would actually do any harm?
Is it because it would be difficult to tally up actual end-consumer sales versus shipments? Probably not. Even if it might be difficult to assemble those figures based on retailer self-reporting, you can bet that Samsung knows every time a new Samsung phone is activated for the first time. The moment you accept that EULA, you're probably giving them a tally. Even if there were fringe situations where a new activation might not be counted, it's unlikely that such occurrences would greatly affect the measurements. This is not rocket science: your phone is connected to the internet and has a unique Samsung-issued hardware identifier (the serial number) corresponding to a model number and likely several other parameters for Samsung's internal use. And if you're Samsung, you're absolutely concerned with measuring things like this (aka sellthrough), as is any smartphone company with half a brain. There is no doubt in my mind that Samsung knows how many Galaxy S6s have been activated to date, and while sales aren't an exact analog to activations, they're so close that it really doesn't matter.
Is it because competitors are able to react more swiftly and precisely to changes in the market if they know how competitors' products are doing? This one sounds reasonable until you really sit down and think about it. Does Xiaomi care about how many Samsung Galaxy S6s are sold in China? Sure, but that's probably mostly just about internal dick-measuring contests and general navel-gazing. Is there anything they can do with that information, other than put it in a keynote presentation for purposes of sick burnage? I struggle to find any compelling alternative use. Companies like to know exactly how competitors' products are selling for one reason and one reason alone: marketing. Xiaomi is not going to change its product plans considerably if Samsung reports Galaxy S6 sales are down 18.6% quarter over quarter versus Kantar World Panel's estimate that they're down 10-12%. In no universe is there an actuary at a company who bursts into a board meeting and tells everyone "GALAXY S6 SALES ARE DOWN! CHANGE EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY!" Instead, that actuary reports Galaxy S6 sales are down to his boss, who then says "huh, interesting" and forwards that email to the marketing department, who then cackle gleefully among themselves and send messages like "LOL! more like touchjizz" (except in Mandarin because this is Xiaomi) to each other in a series of self-congratulatory jokes at Samsung's expense.
Even if these numbers were remotely useful to competitors, there's more than enough representative anecdote to go around to figure out if a competing product is successful or unsuccessful. Negative or few reviews, high levels of stock at retailers, a lack of sales figure communication from the company making the product, and a low number of retail partners are all pretty solid indicators of a flop, and are all pretty discoverable with a little research. The opposite indicators probably mean... the opposite. The exact figures aren't really relevant - Galaxy S6 sales of 6,250,000 in the first month on sale in Fauxtopia versus 5,780,000 are not going to make or break a competitor's product development decisions, unless that competitor is stupid. Product decisions are multifaceted, and the kinds of decisions you'd make based on competing devices are ones that won't come down the pike for many months or even a year-plus, during which time a million other factors and considerations can change.
So, why don't we get exact sales figures by model for smartphones? There are two reasons, I think. The first is simple: Apple sets the gold standard for behavior in the industry (like it or not), and everyone wants to be like Apple, because Apple's level of financial success is enormous (though not unprecedented - Microsoft was actually worth [a lot] more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, in 1999). Apple doesn't break out individual phone model sales, so no one else thinks it's a good idea, either. (And to be clear, I'm not even saying we have to go through every single phone model: just tell us the top 5 or 10, guys. Even that would be nice.)
The second, larger reason is, without a shadow of a doubt, public image. Samsung, LG, Huawei, Motorola, and others are desperately frightened that if journalists and readers of said journalists' content were to see their model sales numbers next to Apple's big-giant-combined-iPhone number, the sky their respective stock prices would fall like a BlackBerry from an 18-story office building. Even though other extremely large industries like automotive and aerospace do publish such figures and surprisingly manage not to crash and burn every time sales for a particular product have a miss or don't meet those of a competitor. Transparency breeds trust, and the fact that smartphone companies feel so hyper-protective and simultaneously vulnerable that they dare not tell us how a particular product performs in the market (unless it is wildly successful) speaks volumes. Transparency also allows meaningful, informed discussion to happen instead of speculation-upon-speculation-upon-analyst-estimates. If the industry would stop spending so much time attempting to curate and manage what the public and media think of its products' success by hiding the ball, and instead publish numbers for what they are: mere numbers, we could, at least marginally, cut down on the level of misinformation and speculation out there. And that's my rant.