New usage stats show Windows holding steady as PC sales drop

The latest numbers from NetMarketShare show that the PC market might be slowing, but it's not changing much. Windows 8 is growing its share as people replace their old PCs, and despite vocal threats, no one appears to have replaced their Windows PC with a Mac or Linux.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

It’s the first day of a new month, which means it’s time for tech journalists to obsess over the latest release of NetMarketShare monthly statistics from Net Applications.

And by zeroing in on microscopic changes in percentages, they will miss the point.


Although Net Applications refers to its monthly numbers as “market share reports,” they really represent usage share, which isn’t the same as market share. Market share measures sales and/or shipments in a given period. It’s a snapshot of the buying choices people make in competitive markets.

Usage share measures the behavior of the installed base. In the mature PC market, which consists of approximately 1.5 billion desktop and portable PCs, newcomers have an uphill battle to even get on the board. Measuring usage share provides an indirect measure of sales, but it takes work to tease out the larger trends.

After looking carefully at the data for May 2013, I can conclude one thing with confidence: Not much has changed in the past couple of months.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Windows 8 is slowly but steadily increasing its share of usage worldwide. In May, according to the NetMarketShare statistics, Windows 8 usage increased from 3.8 percent to 4.3 percent. That pace has remained about the same since February, the first full month after Microsoft’s discounted upgrade offer ended. Since then, NetMarketShare says Windows 8 usage has increased by an average of about 0.5 percent per month.
  • Windows 7 growth stopped on a dime with the release of Windows 8. In October 2012, Windows 7 usage was at 44.7 percent. In May, seven months later, it’s up an inconsequential amount, to 44.8 percent. Earlier this year I called Windows 7 the “Long-Term Support version of Windows.” I predict it will remain popular, especially in enterprises, for years to come.
  • Windows Vista and Windows XP are declining slowly. Collectively, these two versions shared about 46.5 percent of the worldwide usage share in October of last year, before Windows 8 launched. Seven months later, they represent 42.2 percent. That adds up to a 4.3 percent drop, which just happens to match the share of Windows 8 perfectly.
  • Windows users aren’t deserting the platform for OS X and Linux. Last October, OS X and Linux usage added up to 8.3 percent. Seven months after the launch of Windows 8, the combined share has not budged and is still at 8.3 percent.
  • Chrome OS still hasn’t achieved enough usage to appear on the monthly NetMarketShare reports.

In short, the market appears to be in a holding pattern.

Desktop browser usage shares (which aren’t as closely tied to new PC purchases) have also remained mostly unchanged in recent months. For May, NetMarketShare reports that Internet Explorer held a 56 percent share, compared to 20.6 percent for Firefox and 15.7 percent for Chrome. Compared to last October, that’s a slight positive shift for Internet Explorer, which was at 54.1 percent, and for Firefox, which increased from an even 20 percent. NetMarketShare reports a noticeable drop in worldwide usage for Chrome, which had been at 18.6 percent.

The most-watched item in these monthly reports, of course, is Windows 8, which has now been on sale for just over seven months.

Are this month’s figures good news or bad news for Microsoft? Neither, really. The initial bump from early adopters and enthusiasts happened in the first three months after the launch of Windows 8, when Microsoft offered a dramatically discounted upgrade to Windows 8 Pro.

Just about everyone who intended to upgrade to Windows 8 has already done so. That leaves the replacement PC market. Roughly 650 million people who own Windows 7 PCs that are three years old or newer have no plans to change their hardware or software any time soon. Those who are replacing older PCs are, in general, buying new machines with Windows 8 preinstalled, although they’re grumbling a bit more than usual.

Going forward, the fate of Windows 8 is tied to sales of new hardware, including both traditional PCs and new mobile devices like tablets, hybrids, and Ultrabooks.

The traditional PC market is, to put it mildly, not doing well. In the first quarter of this year, PC sales dropped by 14 percent compared to the same period last year. People are still buying PCs, but they’re holding on to them longer and increasingly choosing smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices to handle computing tasks they used to perform with the PC.

Microsoft built Windows 8 so that it could power those nontraditional mobile devices, calculating that it could make up for the decline in traditional PC sales with shipments of new Windows 8-powered devices in the tablet category. But touch-enabled Windows laptops and tablets are just beginning to appear in the market, and they still make up less than 30 percent of Windows PCs on the market.

All that could change later this year. The next wave of Windows 8 devices will be made up of smaller tablets like the Acer Iconia W3-810, which sports an 8.1-inch screen. Windows 8 was designed with 10-inch screens in mind, with a strong bias in favor of landscape orientation. Windows 8.1 specifically supports lower resolutions and alternative aspect ratios. It also makes other changes to the behavior of apps that should make it a good selection for those mini-tablets.

If those devices are priced right, they could be a big success. In the meantime, nothing is likely to change next month, or the month after that.

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