How the media (mis)reported IDC's Q3 smartphone numbers

November 13, 2013: 8:36 AM ET

The story was in the caveats, but most of the tech press missed them.

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FORTUNE -- The headline on IDC's press release Tuesday was guaranteed to catch the attention of anyone in the media looking for signs of Apple's (AAPL) impending doom.

Android Pushes Past 80% Market Share While Windows Phone Shipments Leap 156.0% Year Over Year in the Third Quarter

To IDC's credit, it couched most of its numbers in the proper context. It pointed out, for example, that the "amazing" 156% increase in Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Phone shipments was on top of a "very small base," and that although Apple's smartphone share fell, sales of the iPhone actually increased in what is traditionally one of the iPhone's slowest quarters.

But most of the tech reporters who covered the story missed those subtleties. Drawing on Charles Arthur's excellent backgrounder on what's wrong with measuring market shares, I rated Tuesday's headlines on Techmeme by the following criteria. Did the reporter...

  • Make the distinction between quarterly shipments and installed base?
  • Note that average sale prices of Android phones are falling (boosting sales but shrinking profits)?
  • Point out that Windows Phone's 156% growth was on top of a very small base?
  • Catch the fact that iPhone sales actually grew, even though its share of quarterly shipments declined?
  • Note that iPhone demand was soft leading up to the launch of the new models?

Nobody -- not even IDC -- hit every checkpoint, but some did better than others.

  • Kudos: To CITEworld's Matt Rosoff, the only reporter to point out that  "[quarterly] market share isn't as important as installed base when considering which platform to develop for."
  • Worst headline: "Apple and BlackBerry, together at last (in the loser's column)" from VentureBeat's John Koetsier.
  • Best headline: "IDC data shows 66% of Android's 81% smartphone share are junk phones" by AppleInsider's Daniel Eran Dilger.
  • Best summary: "Android rules the smartphone market, Apple makes all the money, and Windows Phone is scrapping to prove that it deserves the third-place spot that it has scratched out in the game." from TechCrunch's Alex Wilhelm.
  • Best kicker: "So, who won the quarter, again?" from AppAdvice's Bryan Wolfe.

Below: IDC's Q3 numbers.

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