Why Windows 8's usage share is so low, and why it's really not that bad

Why Windows 8's usage share is at 12 percent, what that means, and why it doesn't really matter in the long run.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

It's been a little over a year and a half since Windows 8 hit general availability, but according to the number crunchers at Net Applications the operating system's usage share is at 12.5 percent, while its older brother Windows 7 dominates the PC landscape with a usage share of over 50 percent.

That 12 percent number doesn't sound good, does it? It's barely double-digits. And it sounds worse when you compare that to the 50 percent adoption that Apple claimed for Mavericks at the WWDC keynote last month. And that's made even worse by the fact that Mavericks has only been out for eight months.

That's bad, right?

Well, maybe, and maybe not. I'm here to tell you that there are two different things at play here. First there's Windows 8 itself, and then there's the issue of the statistics themselves.

First, Windows 8 itself.

Note: In this piece, when I refer to Window 8, I mean Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.

I make no bones about the fact that I'm no fan of Windows 8. It's the operating system that after more than two decades of being a dedicated Windows power user that finally made me make the switch to OS X. Microsoft took Windows in a direction that wasn't compatible with what I wanted, and while Windows 8.1 undid some of the damage, and brought some sanity back to the insane interface, by then I'd recognized that OS X better suited my needs and I was gone.

And I'm not alone in thinking that Windows 8, with its heavy emphasis on putting touch first, took Windows in a direction that didn't bring enough benefits to the table to make learning the new interface worthwhile. And it's not like Microsoft made it easy for people either. Usability experts slammed Windows 8, calling it "disappointing" for "both novice and power users" and a "confusing," "cognitive burden," and since these people are usability experts, I assume that they know a little about what they're talking about.

For home users who spend most of their PC time inhabit online worlds such as Facebook and Twitter, and who do most of their interacting with the PC via the browser, learning the new user interface isn't going to take long. They just need to find Internet Explorer, and many only need that so they can download Chrome. But if you're using your PC to do real work, and operate in a world where hours translate into dollars, then people don't want to be wasting time futzing about with the operating system, especially when that doesn't bring with it tangible benefits compared to say Windows 7, Windows Vista, or, perish the thought, Windows XP.

The biggest problem facing Windows 8 is that older versions of Windows do everything that most users need – especially if they are using traditional desktops and notebooks. Touch-enabled devices are better suited to Windows 8, and there it does bring benefits, but until touch becomes firmly established in touch in niche. Microsoft wanted Windows 8 to reflect the future of computing, but in achieving that goal it lost sight of the fact that the majority of Windows users are stuck in the here and now using budget hardware attached to keyboards and mice.

Another problem facing Windows 8 is the timing of the upgrade cycle. Many businesses had just finished upgrading to Windows 7 from Windows XP – many having avoided Windows Vista – and as a result of this they're looking to get the most out of their investment in the platform.

Enterprise isn't keen to spend money just to satisfy Microsoft.

Pack all this into a ball, and it's clear why the interest in Windows 8 has been lukewarm and best.

And then, like all things, it will fade away. But then that's what always happens to every operating system.

Even Windows XP had to die, and people thought that operating system was immortal.

And what does Microsoft care in the long run which version of Windows you're using, because you're still using Windows, and at some point down the line you'll have to hand over your Benjamins to a PC OEM to get a new PC. With a user base of 1.5 billion, Microsoft has little to worry about.

Now with that out of the way let's take a look at the numbers.

12.5 percent doesn't sound like much, but given that there are some 1.5 billion PCs out there, that small percentage translates into massive numbers – something in the region of 185 million systems running Windows 8.

Not bad.

And what about that comparison to OS X Mavericks? At the WWDC 2014 keynote Apple CEO Tim Cook said that 40 million copies of the new version of OS X had been installed. If 40 million translates into a Mavericks adoption rate of 51 percent – another number provided to us by Cook – then that makes the total Mac user base around 78.5 million Macs.

So, while Mavericks adoption has indeed been fast, the number of PCs running Windows 8 far exceeds the number of Macs running Mavericks, or, for that matter, the number of Macs in total out there.

Numbers can be deceiving, even when they're accurate. 

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