Software

Windows 10: How popular is Microsoft's latest OS compared to XP, Vista, 7 and 8?

With Microsoft announcing that Windows 10 is being used on 300 million devices, we look at the numbers for Redmond's earlier releases.

Windows 10 is running on 300 million devices — putting Microsoft on track to hit its target of getting the OS onto one billion machines by July 2018.

But how does adoption of Microsoft's latest operating system compare to earlier versions of Windows. We gathered statistics to see how Windows 10 is doing relative to its forebears.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

This chart gives you an idea of Windows 10's relative uptake so far, based on figures related to the rate at which recent Windows operating systems were adopted. Right now Windows 10 seems to be doing pretty well, but there a number of caveats to consider, which I discuss at the end of the article.

I built this chart from the data points below:

With PC ownership increasing each year, you might expect the number of people getting Microsoft operating systems to increase with each new release. For example, while PC shipments have fallen in recent years, analyst house Gartner estimated 54.2 million PCs were shipped in 2003, compared to 288.7 million in 2015.

But the numbers don't increase with each new OS, with some of Microsoft's efforts proving to be more popular than others.

The sluggish demand for both Vista and Windows 8 is evident. Vista's poor showing reflects complaints at the time, which centred around security, digital rights management, hardware requirements and performance, and software compatibility. Meanwhile changes to Windows 8's interface, including the controversial removal of the Start menu, resulted in demand so weak that analyst firm Canalys warned in 2014 that "Microsoft risks losing momentum unless it does something drastic to turn its Windows business around".

The chart also doesn't capture the enduring popularity of Windows XP, which proved to be one of Microsoft's most successful Windows releases ever — with extended support for this durable OS ending on April 8 2014, an unprecedented 12 and a half years after its launch.

Windows 10 is clearly adding more users each month than its predecessors, but there are many possible explanations, as I discuss below.

Context

When it comes to using these figures to measure the relative popularity of Microsoft's operating systems, these are only a rough guide, as the following caveats need to be considered.

The number of PC owners has increased substantially over the years, particularly since Windows XP went on sale in the early 2000s, so later operating systems will have an advantage due to the larger install base.

To date, Windows 10 has been offered as a free upgrade to Windows 7 and 8.x users running the Home, Pro or Ultimate editions. In comparison, earlier versions of the Windows operating system had to be purchased, so you would expect a free product to be installed more often than a paid-for equivalent.

Microsoft has been criticised for its aggressive tactics in trying to get users to upgrade to Windows 10, including pushing the upgrade to users via Windows automatic update feature, which most people have enabled by default. Given Microsoft wasn't engaged in such practices with earlier OSes, this likely weights the numbers in Windows 10's favor.

The number of new devices running each OS is also based on figures gathered over differing lengths of time. While the Windows 10 figure is based on figures for the first nine months after launch, the earlier Microsoft operating systems are based on figures for the first 15 - 20 months. This could skew the results in a number of ways, on the one hand the lower number of business users in the early days of an OS could dampen the growth rate for Windows 10. On the other, the momentum for Windows 10 may well drop away after its early spurt, particularly after Windows 10 stops being a free upgrade in July.

Another confounding factor is that figures for operating systems older than Windows 10 are based on Microsoft numbers for licences sold. I believe Microsoft counted a licence as being sold when a device running Windows was ready for sale, not when it was sold to a customer. This is different to Windows 10, where the figures reflect the number of copies of the OS activated on devices.

Windows 10 also runs on more types of devices than earlier versions of Windows, not only PCs but also tablets and phones, Xbox One consoles, HoloLens and Surface Hubs.

Microsoft also doesn't seem to give precise figures, rather rounded up numbers or ballpark measures, such as 'more than 180 million'.

Finally, according to some analyses, the one billion devices running Windows 10 in 2018 may turn out to be mainly PCs. If that is the case, and if smartphones continue to be the world's most popular computing device, then hitting that target may be something of a hollow victory for Microsoft.

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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