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Falling in line with recent reports of the PC market's ongoing struggles, the data reasserts that tablets have cut into the market for traditional computers. Despite this shift in consumer preference, and despite recent indications that Win8 has accrued momentum among tablet users, the report also suggests that Microsoft has yet to gain traction in the emerging mobile computing market.
Net Applications found that all Windows versions except Windows 8 lost ground in April. Windows 7 remained the top OS in the world, with a 44.72% share, and Windows XP was second, with 38.31%. Windows Vista continued its inexorable march toward obsolescence but still hung on to 4.75% of the field. Windows 8 reached an all-time high of 3.82%, up from 3.17% at the end of March.
[ Curious about the next Windows operating system? Read Windows Blue: What We Know. ]
For Microsoft, the data contains several silver linings. After debuting inauspiciously last fall, Windows 8 suffered declines in adoption rate throughout the holidays and early 2013. The controversial OS gained some momentum in February, however, and has since continued to make incremental progress. Win8's current market share represents a 20.5% improvement over its share at the end of March, giving the OS its best month-over-month growth of 2013.
Microsoft is probably encouraged by Windows XP's longevity as well. Support for the OS will end in less than a year, which means that many businesses will spend the rest of 2013 upgrading to a new platform. Given Microsoft's prominent role in existing IT infrastructure, many of these upgrades will involve a newer version of Windows.
Windows 8's balance between legacy desktop tasks and touch-oriented tablet apps still has many enterprises cautious. Windows 7, in contrast, is a proven commodity. Win8 is also at a disadvantage because of its touch-centric design; to get the most out of the new OS, businesses would need to invest in costly new hardware. Windows 7, on the other hand, can simply be installed on many of the machines currently running XP.
Still, the report speaks more to Microsoft's challenges than its opportunities. Earlier this month, a Strategy Analytics report suggested that Windows 8, though an underperformer on traditional PCs, had made solid inroads on tablets. Net Applications, however, came to bleaker conclusions; it reported that "Windows 8 Touch" and "Windows 8 RT Touch," categories that were tracked separately from the main "Windows 8" subset, accounted for only .02% and .00% of the market, respectively.
To be clear, this grim appraisal from Net Applications doesn't contradict the Strategy Analytics research as much as re-contextualize it. The earlier report found that Windows 8 tablets accounted for 7.5% of all tablets sold in the first quarter of 2013. This number seemingly belies the OS's lowly rank in the Net Applications data -- but divergent survey methodologies explain much of the difference. Strategy Analytics studied the number of Windows 8 units shipped from Microsoft and its OEMs, which isn't a clear indication of how many devices were actually purchased. Net Applications, in contrast, tracks Web traffic from individual users, arguably providing a clearer picture of platform popularity.
The Net Applications data also contextualizes each OS within the scope of all active products, making it fundamentally dissimilar from the Strategy Analytics report. The latter study was confined to tablets and a three-month sales window, making the data a measure of Windows 8's progress relative to the concurrent progress of competing mobile platforms. The Net Applications report, in contrast, compares Win8 to platforms that have had years to build a user base -- a juxtaposition that few new products are likely to win. The bottom line? The takeaway from the two reports is that although Win8 has made modest progress, possibly with extra momentum from tablets, it is still a minor player in the overall computing landscape.
On a related theme, the report reasserts that though Windows remains the most dominant OS, Microsoft's empire is slowly eroding. Net Applications found that 91.78% of computers and hybrids run some form of Windows. The product line's share hasn't been above 92% since July 2012 and hasn't been above 93% since July 2011. The various versions of OS X, meanwhile, accounted for less than 6% of users in July 2011 but now account for more than 7%. Such shifts do not amount to a major power realignment, but their sustained duration, along with Apple's market-beating performance throughout the PC slump, suggest that Windows is doing little to improve Microsoft's industry influence.
If the world were still focused only on PCs, Microsoft would have nothing to worry about. But analysts expect tablets to outsell traditional PCs for the foreseeable future.
Even if Microsoft remains the preferred OS for desktop users, the company will need to make strides in the mobile market if Windows is to maintain its overall industry clout.
Microsoft will almost certainly remain a powerhouse no matter what happens, but it's one thing to be the industry's sole superpower, and quite another to be one of several. With Google, Apple, Samsung and others all more firmly established among tablet-minded consumers, the overall OS landscape -- including the loyalties of developers -- is in motion.
Indeed, even Windows 7 speaks to the increasingly fragmented market. As mentioned, Microsoft's most popular OS stands to gain even more ground as Windows XP is retired. But XP claimed more than 80% of the market at its peak. Windows 7 is unlikely to reach this number, not only because its current share is so much less than 80% but also, to a lesser extent, because some XP machines will be replaced with Macs, Chromebooks, or Android or iOS devices.
Windows 8's struggles also speak to this fragmentation, and to how it affects assessments of a given OS's performance. Win8 has amassed much less than the 12% market share Windows 7 had snared through the same point in its release cycle, but the number of active PCs in the world has also increased over time. This increase inflates the extent to which newer Windows versions appear to trail their predecessors. For Windows 7 to improve on Windows XP's market share, the newer OS will need to sell substantially more licenses. Likewise, Windows 8 would have needed to outperform Windows 7 just to achieve the same market penetration.
All in all, the new numbers leave Windows 8's prospects more or less where they were before: reliant on both new devices with next-generation Intel chips, and Windows Blue, a major OS update expected by this fall. If the new offerings are a hit, Windows 8's early missteps could soon be forgotten. But if Win8 adoption continues to be slow through the end of the year, Microsoft will face more criticism than ever.