Windows adoption rates: a history lesson

In the Talkback section of my earlier post on XP versus Vista adoption, several commenters pointed to a PC World Techlog post that supposedly contradicts my conclusions. Those PC World numbers are interesting, but they don't add up. But don't believe me: just ask PC World, which published a very different set of numbers one year ago.

In the Talkback section of my earlier post on XP versus Vista adoption (Who's choosing XP over Vista?), several commenters pointed to a PC World Techlog post by editor Harry McCracken that they believe contradicts my conclusions. Here's what Harry had to say:

On January 30th, Microsoft released Windows Vista to consumers, who have been adopting it in ever-growing numbers. But those numbers have been creeping along rather than rocketing: As of now, Vista ... is used by 14 percent of visitors, while 71 percent use Windows XP...

How much of an accomplishment is it for a new version of Windows to get to 14 percent usage in 11 months? The logical benchmark is to compare it to the first eleven months of Windows XP, back in 2001 and 2002. In that period, that operating system went from nothing to 36 percent usage on

Well, that settles it, then. XP was a huge hit in its first year and Vista's a flop, right? Of course, that wasn't what PC World was saying one year ago, when it published this report from its parent company's IDG News Service back on November 27, 2006:

Up to 15 percent of PC users will move to Vista within the first year that the operating system is available, said David Mitchell, the software practice leader at Ovum Ltd. "That would make it the fastest-moving operating system ever," he said.

By comparison, between 12 to 14 percent of users switched to Windows XP during the first year of its release, Mitchell said. [emphasis added]

That prediction sounded about right then, and one year later that analyst seems to have nailed the actual number.

So, PC World, which is it? Did 36% of the market switch to XP in its first year of release or was it 12-14%? I have no doubt that the stats Harry posted were accurate as far as his website metrics go, but I think those statistics say a lot more about PC World's website and its unique readership than they do about the larger market.

Everyone knows a crystal ball works better when you're looking at history from five years ago. Those 2002 numbers in particular don't reflect the Windows marketplace as a whole. Does anyone really believe that 36% of the market at large adopted Windows XP in the first 11 months after its release? I certainly don't remember any contemporary reports of XP's success one year after its release (except, of course, in press releases from Redmond). Instead, I remember headlines like these:

Windows XP Slow to Take Hold - CRN, Oct 11, 2002

On the first anniversary of Windows XP's release, Microsoft has little to celebrate.

Less than 10 percent of Microsoft's installed base has upgraded to Windows XP since its release last October. That matches a 2001 Gartner prediction that nearly 75 percent of all corporate PCs would still be running Windows 95, 98 or NT Workstation by the end of 2002.

The adoption rate for the installed base of 250 million Windows users is "pretty small," said Rogers Weed, vice president of Windows client product management at Microsoft. "We're trying to kick-start some momentum."

In fact, all this coverage is thoroughly predictable. Microsoft tries to build up hype in the pre-launch phase, and then customers adopt products the way they always have, as part of the PC replacement cycle. It was true in 2002 with XP, it was true in 2007 with Vista, and it will be true several years in the future, when the next Windows release finally rolls around.