What Microsoft Windows 8 License Numbers Don't Say - InformationWeek

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5/7/2013
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What Microsoft Windows 8 License Numbers Don't Say

Microsoft says 100 million Windows 8 licenses have shipped to OEMs. There's a big difference between shipping licenses and gaining or even retaining customers.

8 Things Microsoft Could Do To Save Windows 8
8 Things Microsoft Could Do To Save Windows 8
(click image for slideshow)
Microsoft revealed Monday that it has sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses, a number that roughly matches Windows 7's sales volume at the same point in its lifecycle.

The disclosure continues an ongoing war of emphasis between Microsoft and industry observers -- since the new OS launched, Microsoft has touted robust license sales, while analysts have emphasized Win8's modest market share and role in the slumping PC market.

This time, however, the software giant acknowledged that many users have been dissatisfied with Windows 8. A significant change in tone, the concession emphasizes the importance of Windows Blue -- an update expected this summer -- in determining if Windows 8 joins the ignominious ranks of Windows Vista or climbs to the heights of Windows 7 and XP.

[ Windows 8 convert? Here's how to outfit your laptop for less than $25 total. Read 8 Windows 8 Apps Under $25. ]

To date, public discussion of Windows 8 has followed a simple, two-step cycle: analysts and reviewers declare that the OS has underperformed, and a short time later, Microsoft insinuates the exact opposite. Win8 launched to middling reviews in October and failed to make waves over the traditionally lucrative holiday season, for example, but that didn't stop Microsoft from boasting in early January that the newest Windows had sold 60 million licenses, on par with the debut of its well-received predecessor, Windows 7.

This back-and-forth has persisted throughout the spring: headlines proclaimed doom and gloom for the ailing PC market only to have Microsoft report relatively decent Windows earnings; multiple sources indicated that Windows 8's real-world adoption has been sluggish, only to have Microsoft announce that 100 million licenses have been sold. And so on.

Some of the dissonance stems from simple math. There are more PCs in the world today than there were when Windows 7 debuted. To match the previous version's market share growth, Windows 8 would have needed to sell substantially more licenses, not merely kept pace.

Moreover, even if Windows 8 were the most praised OS in history, enterprise refresh cycles essentially prohibited it from bettering Windows 7's launch. Many businesses either just migrated or are in the process of migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7. Given that Win7 has come to be appreciated as a reliable performer, businesses had little incentive to investigate a new OS, especially because Windows 8's touch-oriented interface doesn't yet provide obvious benefits for the bulk of enterprise users. Windows 7 also had the benefit of following Windows Vista, which was generally panned by critics and abandoned by many users. Lacking a weak predecessor or immediate access into the enterprise, Windows 8 was limited from the start.

Not all of Win8's struggles are easily excused, however. With widespread enterprise deployments at least a year away, Microsoft hoped consumers would embrace its newest offering. The company's decision to de-emphasize the traditional desktop UI in favor of touch-sensitive Live Tiles, for example, was motivated largely by tablets, whose popularity among consumers has contributed mightily to slowed PC sales. Despite Microsoft's ambitions, many found the OS's hybrid interface confusing. A dearth of both apps and attractive touch-enabled hardware only compounded these criticisms.

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/13/2013 | 7:28:58 PM
re: What Microsoft Windows 8 License Numbers Don't Say
Ha! You're probably right that page views would drop-- Jodi Arias commanded more headlines in the last month than all the world's charities combined, so the public's appetite for carnage and negativity is not in question. I'll agree that journalism's slide toward info-tainment isn't a good thing, and I'll reiterate that some people definitely have an ax to grind when it comes to Microsoft. But assessing Windows 8 is - as Redmond SVP Frank Shaw said Friday - a nuanced process. That means including both the good and the bad. Here's an alternate test: if Windows Blue delivers the goods, will commentators find a way to resist Microsoft's accomplishments, or will the company be praised for incorporating user feedback? I'll be as interested as anyone to see how people react, and though I doubt Microsoft will silence all critics, I'm optimistic that they'll show off some pretty cool stuff during June's BUILD conference.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/11/2013 | 8:08:12 PM
re: What Microsoft Windows 8 License Numbers Don't Say
Thanks for your thoughts, Terabyte Net. Windows 8 gives some users reason to be passionate, and I'm glad you're bringing that perspective to the conversation.

I'll grant that some within the media probably have it in for Microsoft. But to blame Win8's sales on journalists and bloggers is to exclude a lot of factors. I won't get into the merits of the UI, since that's obviously subjective. But even if we assume that Windows 8 is a worthy OS, its adoption has faced a lot of challenges, many of which have nothing to do with what members of the press say or think.

First, there's the choice factor, which I described in my reply to Chrisgull, as well as in a recent column.

Second, there's cost. The first round of Windows 8 devices weren't cheap. Microsoft and company are in the process of rectifying this problem-- but I'm sure I'm not the only one who decided that the Surface Pro, though an attractive device, was just too expensive.

Third, there's Microsoft's Windows 8 marketing. Until recently, most ads focused on hyperkinetic editing, stomping school girls, and boardroom meetings that spontaneously burst into breakdancing. Some of the ads are kind of cool-- but they do almost NOTHING to communicate how the devices work. If Microsoft had showed off some interesting capabilities, people might have been more willing to deal with the learning curve. Put another way, Windows Phone 8 has made relatively better progress than Windows 8. I personally found many of the celebrity-driven WIndows Phone 8 ads disingenuous, but the commercials nonetheless showed off the user experience. I don't have hard proof, but I think this difference in marketing tactics probably contributed to Windows Phone 8's relative advantage in consumer adoption. (To be fair, Intel's Ultrabook ads did a better job communicating the UE of Windows 8-- but any victories those commercials might have achieved could have been offset by the cost of the advertised devices.)

There's also the state of the computing market and the larger economy. If you're a business user that already relies on Windows 7, does Windows 8 offer some advantages? Yes. Are these advantages enough to demand an upgrade? Not for everyone. Some of the individual buyers for whom Windows 8 might be appealing haven't had a clear reason to upgrade. They already have legacy applications and portability with their existing Windows 7 laptops-- and if they don't need something thinner or lighter, or something with a touchscreen, I can see why a lot of would-be buyers have thus far decided that Win8's under-the-hood improvements in stability aren't worth the expense.

Enterprises, meanwhile, aren't going to even think about deploying a new OS until 2014, if not later. That delay, combined with the point in the previous paragraph, basically means that the population of users most likely to prefer Win8 over tablet-based alternatives hasn't had an irresistible need to upgrade.

Then there's consumers. A lot of them just don't need the full OS experience. Some do. But many just don't-- or they at least don't feel like they do, and Microsoft, as noted above, hasn't offered the marketing to persuade them otherwise. If consumers already have iPads for the things they do most often, why buy an expensive new Windows 8 device? This limitation would be present even if the Windows 8 UI were more universally praised. I'm a big camera person, and I think Canon's 1DC and BlackMagic's Cinema Camera are pretty cool devices. But do I NEED them? Not at all-- which is the reason I haven't bought either. I think the same logic applies when some tablet users consider upgrading to Windows 8.

So, did the media have some role in Windows 8's sales? Yes. But would Microsoft have sold 2-3x as many copies if journalists and bloggers had played a different tune? I doubt it. If Microsoft had sold 2-3x as many Win8 copies, it would have blown Windows 7 adoption out of the water-- and given the above variables, I'm skeptical that ANY amount of positive press could have precipitated that result.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/11/2013 | 7:31:28 PM
re: What Microsoft Windows 8 License Numbers Don't Say
Hi Chrisgull,

Thanks for the comments. I've met some people who adapted to Windows 8 within a few seconds-- so you have a point. But I also know people who've taken much longer to get used to the new UI, and others who gave up before making it through the learning curve. But I don't think anecdotal observations - yours or mine - give us a definitive idea of Win8's intuitiveness or lack thereof. One can criticize people for abandoning interest too early, sure-- but that's a different conversation than talking about the UI's user-friendliness for novice users.

Speaking personally, I've run around conferences with a few Windows 8 tablets, which are much nicer to haul around than the Win7 Lenovo ThinkPad that InformationWeek issued to me. Did the new UI get in the way? Sometimes, but I figured it out pretty quickly, and I was happy to have a real computer that starts up in a flash and gives me different options (e.g. as a tablet, with an attached keyboard, etc) for interacting with it. Some Win8 quirks annoyed me - like the fact that I couldn't modify some settings without jumping between the two environments - but Microsoft looks like it will address those problems with Windows Blue.

Now, did my experience convince me that Win8 is a must-have upgrade? That depends-- but for a lot of users, probably not. If you need something that's mobile but that has a full OS, some of the Win8 models are really nice (though I've found the touchscreens a bit non-responsive on some models, and I've found that some of the last-generation Atom-based devices freeze up). But depending on the software you need, the MacBook Air must be just as good. And if you don't need a full-fledged OS, the iPad or an Android tablet might fit the bill too. Some of the Win7 Ultrabooks are mobile enough. And if you don't need a computer that travels with you, a Win7 or OS X desktop could serve you better than a Win8 one.

Some of the Win8 vs. OS X/ Win7/ iOS/ Android/ etc. debates remind me a bit of camera snobbery. That is, just because someone runs around with a professional-grade Nikon D800 or Canon 5D Mark III, does that mean he or she should look down on the people who are content to use their smartphone's camera? Should the Photoshop users of the world belittle those who are content with Instragram's filters? Do those with flashier gear always produce better work than those who rely on the consumer-grade stuff? The answer is "no" on all counts. DIfferent horses for different courses.

And that, I think, is the important point. If Windows 8 had been released a few years ago, it might have sold like gangbusters. But different groups of buyers have different needs. When Windows was the default OS, people used it regardless of their individual priorities. But now there's greater choice, which means some options cater to certain niches better than others. That naturally limits Win8's growth. That's not necessarily an indictment against WIn8's worth; rather, it's just the reality that Windows 8 will fit some people's needs better than others.

As Microsoft improves the UI and as Win8's app library grows, the OS's appeal might grow to include more users. The lower prices of forthcoming models will help too. But the OS market has fragmented along different divides. Some of them can be characterized as "consumer vs. professional" but even that's a generalization that's not always true.
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