As Microsoft's monopoly crumbles, its mobile future is crucial

The latest real-world data on web usage confirms that Microsoft's once-dominant position in the world of personal computing is crumbling. Microsoft's share of the web dropped below a key level for the first time this year, and Apple is dominating the mobile web. That makes Windows 8 a big and risky bet.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

After nearly a decade, Microsoft’s reign as a monopoly is over.

The consent decree in U.S. v. Microsoft expired last month, officially removing Microsoft from antitrust scrutiny by the United States Department of Justice. And the latest real-world data on web usage confirms that Microsoft’s once-dominant position in the world of personal computing is crumbling.

For the past four years, I’ve collected semi-annual snapshots of web usage from Net Market Share. The data for the first half of 2011 tell an ominous story for Microsoft. See for yourself:

Data provided by > Net Market Share

For the first time since I’ve been recording this data, Microsoft’s share of web usage has dropped below the 90% mark—to 88.88% in April 2011.

That’s a reflection of the decline of the traditional PC and the increasing importance of mobile devices. People aren’t abandoning Windows for other traditional operating systems—OS X usage is flat, too, and desktop Linux still can’t crack the 1% level.

No, people are turning to mobile devices to do tasks that used to require a PC, and the iPad has been the biggest success in that role. In just over a year, it has grown from a microscopic market share to nearly 1% of all web traffic. And the iPhone continues to capture share as well, increasing from 0.53% to 1.23% over the past year.

Thanks to the potent one-two punch of the iPad and the iPhone, Apple continues to roll:

Data provided by > Net Market Share

When I looked at this data six months ago, I asked, “Are mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad taking over tasks that used to be done by PCs?” The answer is a resounding yes:

Data provided by > Net Market Share

By and large, these numbers don’t tell a great story for Microsoft. The company can take some small encouragement in the fact that the overall share for mobile devices is still small. That means it’s possible to overcome the late start. Android proved that a newcomer can make a dent, going from zero (literally) to roughly a third of the share of iOS over the past two years.

Six months ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was asked to pick Microsoft’s riskiest bet. He answered, “The next version of Windows.”

Now that we’ve seen demos of Windows 8, it’s clear what he meant. With Windows 8, Microsoft is unifying its user experience across an entire range of devices, including traditional PCs, ARM-based tablets, smartphones, and the Xbox 360. The stakes are incredibly high, and there’s really only one chance to get it right. if Windows 8 flops on phones and tablets, Microsoft’s future is very dim indeed.


* Methodology: Net Market Share publishes snapshots of PC usage based on data from 160 million visits per month to its large collection of sites (the exact methodology is here). Its monthly reports on operating system versions contain a wealth of detailed information about even the most obscure OSes, and they’ve tracked the performance of mobile platforms consistently for the past four years. To compile the charts in this series of posts, I recorded data from the Operating System Market Share reports for desktop and mobile OSes at six-month intervals beginning in October 2007.

Editorial standards