Given a choice, customers of a Pacific Northwest PC system builder overwhelming pick Windows 7 over the newer Windows 8,according to the company's president.
"Windows 7 is known, it has years of solid reputation behind it, but Windows 8 has gotten a mixed reaction in the press and social media, and the lack of a Start menu is a hot-button issue among our customers," said Jon Bach, president of Puget Systems, an Auburn, Wash. independent PC builder.
Puget Systems is no Dell or Hewlett-Packard, but instead sells high-performance, built-to-order PCs. The average price: $2,500 to $2,600, said Bach. Most are desktops.
Since Windows 8's launch, between 80% and 90% of the systems sold by Puget were pre-installed with the three-year-old Windows 7.
Bach was surprised by the sales numbers. "I'm not down on the production line every day," he said in an interview yesterday. "Before we looked at the data, I would have guessed that Windows 8 was 30% to 40%, but it's just 10% to 20%."
Puget's customers are admittedly not representative of the mass market -- some are hard core gamers, the bulk are professionals and businesses that demand the most from their PCs -- but it does show that, given a choice, they pick Windows 7.
"Our sales are demand-driven," Bach said of Puget's custom PC business model.
That's different than larger OEMs, who in late October quickly shifted to selling Windows 8 systems almost exclusively. Finding a Windows 7 PC on some of their websites can be like looking for hen's teeth. It's even tougher at retail, where Windows 7 has essentially vanished.
And it's not like Puget hasn't given Windows 8 a shot. "We started running Windows 8 here as soon as Microsoft offered previews," said Bach. "All our sales reps are running Windows 8, and many of them have upgraded their own home PCs to Windows 8. We like to think we're being objective and fair."
But customers spoke. And while Puget Systems doesn't carry the weight of a multinational OEM, the cold shoulder its customers have given Windows 8 should still give Microsoft pause. Three years ago, Puget saw no such hesitation to adopt Windows 7, in large part because of the dissatisfaction with Vista and pent-up demand for a workable OS to replace the even-then-aging Windows XP.
Others have reported similar Windows 8 apathy among PC buyers.
Last week, the NPD Group said that in a four-week-period surrounding Windows 8's Oct. 26 debut, U.S. consumer PC sales dropped 21% compared to the same period in 2011. The research firm's conclusion: Windows 8's introduction failed to turn around sluggish PC sales, killing the industry's hopes of earlier this year.
Puget's customers are turned off, said Bach, by Windows 8's new UI (user interface), the missing Start button and menu, and the operating system's emphasis on touch.
Few of Puget's customers request a touch screen -- even those that purchase PCs running Windows 8 -- but then most are buying desktops, not more mobile systems like ultrabooks or tablets, Bach said. "We've been offering a touch screen, but we've only sold a handful. Most just aren't interested in touch," he said.
Even so, he has hope for the new OS. "There's a few weeks of shock when you hate [Windows 8], but eventually you get accustomed to it," said Bach. "It's hard to say when, but Windows 8 will gradually get a higher adoption rate."
It's unclear how long system builders like Puget will be able to sell Windows 7 PCs. Although Microsoft has a policy that allows OEMs to pre-install the previous Windows edition on PCs for up to two years after a new version launches, Microsoft's website, last updated in January 2012, doesn't yet specify an "end-of-sale" date for Windows 7.
Microsoft put a stop to sales of PCs with Vista pre-installed in October 2011, two years after Windows 7's debut. If the company applies the same schedule to Windows 7, which is likely, OEMs will halt Windows 7 system sales in late October 2014.
Even after Windows 7's end-of-sale date, however, build-to-order shops like Puget will be able assemble a PC using downgrade rights, which requires them to sell the buyer a license to Windows 8 Pro -- the one version with downgrade rights -- and then install and activate Windows 7 Professional.
"But the downgrade option is really painful," Bach acknowledged. "It's not a process suitable for mass production."
Puget Systems also uses downgrade rights to sell a handful of PCs powered by Windows XP each month. "We took XP off the website a couple months ago, but we still get very specific requests for it, usually for people who need to run proprietary software," said Bach.
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Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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