Who's Online? Sony Claims 20m, Microsoft Claims 17m

British statesman Benjamin Disraeli once opined there were "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Case in point, a few weeks ago Microsoft claimed that over 17 million people were "now active members" of its Xbox Live online community. Of the roughly 28 million total Xbox 360s in the wild, that's about 60%.

That sounds impressive, but since Microsoft breaks Xbox Live into two tiers — one free that gives access to basic online features, one that costs $50 annually and effectively allows players to compete with each other online — the number's effectively meaningless.

A few days ago, a leaked internal Excel sheet headlined by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer helped give that number teeth by revealing that slightly less (but still over half — 56 percent) of Xbox Live members in fact pay to use the service.

Assuming the document's credible, it finally puts a number on the percent of Xbox 360 owners willing to subsidize the service to the tune of roughly $4 a month. I've argued that Microsoft should render Xbox Live free, after its elimination of the similar annual subscriber fee associated with its PC-based Games For Windows Live. Now I know why no one's likely to listen.

56 percent of 28 million equals roughly 15.7 million users. Multiply by the service's annual fee and you're looking at $784 million in revenue. No wonder Microsoft's Don Mattrick claimed last July that gamers have spent "more than one billion dollars on Xbox Live."

Sony's response? Yesterday the company claimed over 20 million registered accounts worldwide for its PlayStation Network, up an impressive six million since November 2008, i.e. 2 million average new subscribers per month.

But wait a second. Doesn't the PlayStation Network include the PlayStation Portable, too?

Yep. And while the PlayStation 3 has a global install base of over 20 million and we can probably attribute two-thirds of the recent 6 million boost to the 4 million Sony's say have signed up for PlayStation Home, Sony just announced it's shifted 50 million PSPs worldwide. Chances are, the PSP comprises a substantial portion of the total subscriber base (not that there's anything wrong with that).

But impossible to say for sure. Sony won't detail which pegs go in which holes, and regarding the Xbox Live leak, who knows whether it was intentional or just someone's careless job-snuffing oops.

Beyond the rhetorical import of glitzy statistics, the services are apples and oranges. Sony's service is one-size-fits-all and costs nothing. Its consumer revenue model's digital download driven — it claims $180 million in download sales to date. Microsoft's model comprises both the subscriber fee and digital content bits, and it's unclear whether Mattick's summer 2008 $1 billion revenue claim was strictly Xbox Live subscriber fees, or intended to aggregate both.

So who's winning? Who knows. All we're allowed is a carefully massaged, contextually ambiguous glimpse into the sanctum sanctorum. And even the latest cat loosed from Microsoft's bag is probably notable less for what it reveals about the company's service than what it doesn't.

Matt Peckham agrees with Gregg Easterbrook, who wrote "Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything." He's strapping integers to waterboards at twitter.com/game_on.

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