Estimate: 2.5M Windows Phone 7 Shipments in Q1

Research firm Canalys released global smartphone sales estimates from the first quarter of 2011, with conjecture that no more than 2.5 million handsets running on Microsoft’s platform were shipped. The data doesn’t show this figure directly, but can be interpreted based on the numbers Canalys provides for competing platforms. If the numbers are accurate, it means less than 2.5 percent of the 1o1 million smartphones sold in the first three months of 2011 were Microsoft-powered (s msft).

Android (s goog) continued to be the big platform winner, as expected, with 35.7 million handsets shipped around the world. Surprising however, is the emergence of the Asia-Pacific region as the area with the most smartphones sold: a full 37 percent of the total handset sales. That might explain why Apple (s aapl) is focused on China and neighboring countries as a large growth area, something the company mentioned in its most recent investor call. I’d also expect Google’s platform to benefit from growth in this area as inexpensive but capable Android phones are positioned to enable the smartphone revolution in India, China and other countries.

Samsung’s Bada platform has also done well, and it’s here that the Microsoft numbers can be gleaned. In the Canalys report, analyst Pete Cunningham specifically states:

Samsung also shipped nearly 3.5 million bada operating system-based smart phones, outperforming total shipments of Windows Phone devices by more than a million units.

There’s a little room for interpretation there, depending any rounding Canalys has done, but Cunningly believes that approximately 2.5 million Windows Phone 7 devices were shipped to retailers and carriers. Even in the unlikely event that all were sold to customers, the numbers show Microsoft is far behind competitors in a market that’s growing fast; global smartphone sales are up 83 percent from the prior year’s first quarter, says Canalys.

Giving the benefit of the doubt and optimistically assuming 2.5 million Microsoft-powered handsets were sold to customers in the first quarter, the number would still pale in comparison to the 18.65 million iPhones and the 35.7 million Android handsets sold in the same time period. Even Samsung’s own Bada platform for mid-tier devices shipped more than Microsoft’s.

Without actual sales numbers from Microsoft, it’s difficult to gauge the exact progress the company is making. But even with limited data and a little interpretation, it’s clear to me Microsoft needs to pick up the pace both for Windows Phone 7 improvements and its Nokia(s nok) partnership if it wants to make a dent in either iOS or Android.