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Nokia’s Windows (Smart)Phone performance was drowned out last week by Microsoft’s big announcement of the Surface inventory write-off. They are pieces of the same puzzle however.

First, a look at Nokia.

There were 7.4 million Lumia phones sold in Q2 with 0.5 million sold in the US. Although Windows Phones grew sequentially from 5.6 million the previous quarter, and up from 4.0 million in the same quarter last year, total smartphones are down y/y and nearly flat over the last four quarters. This is of course because Symbian phones have finally disappeared from volume shipments. The following graph shows the history of Nokia’s smartphone shipments.

Although it’s tempting to compare Lumia to iPhone (given the premium positioning in the US) the average price of €157 or $206 shows that Lumia is more adequately compared to Android. This is about a third of what Apple gets for its iPhones.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nokia’s always had a knack for mass-market phones and certainly that was one reason Microsoft was attracted to them. Presumably, the promise of the relationship was to insert Windows Phone into the Nokia development and distribution pipeline, squeezing out costs and filling up channels.

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 7-22-3.24.21 PMThe problem for the brand has been that although priced at Android levels, volumes are nowhere near and the gap is widening. At current activation rates, Android is selling 16.5x faster than Windows Phone (assuming 90% of Windows Phones are Lumia).

So Nokia’s problems become Microsoft’s problems. As bad as Nokia seems to be doing with Lumia, it’s doing a lot better than Microsoft with hardware. Here the story of the great Surface write-off should give pause. Microsoft announced that it would write off $900 million of Surface.  In terms of write-offs this is pretty significant. Compare it with the debacle of the PlayBook write-off when BlackBerry (then known as RIM) wrote off $485 million for tablets it could not sell. Or with Microsoft’s own write-off for the Kin which took $240 million out of its shareholder’s pockets. The only charge for hardware that I found higher was Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 which cost it $1 billion for the “red ring of death”.

But this is not an unusual situation at Microsoft. Besides Xbox, Kin and Surface, Microsoft also declared victory in (read: shut down) SPOT watches, the Smart Display, Tablet PCs and the Zune. This is why when I heard about the Surface I asked who would be Microsoft’s Tim Cook.

By the way, $900 million write-off could amount to over 3 million devices, more if Microsoft is assuming some residual value in the inventory. Misjudging demand to such a degree that more units are disposed of than sold implies a basic failure of understanding of hardware businesses.

Which brings up the question of what Microsoft will do. They are likely to double down on hardware (also signaled by their re-org) simply because in a device world (read: post-PC) the economics of licensing Windows and Office are evaporating. The price points of EULAs simply don’t hold and there are good enough alternatives in use by the hundreds of millions of iOS and Android devices out there already. By withholding Office from iOS and Android, Microsoft has shown a billion people that they can live without it and they already knew they could live without Windows.

So rather than fight, Microsoft chose to switch. Switching from software to hardware, however, is proving very hard. I’m sure quite a bit harder than management  thought.