Users refuse to chuck XP as Windows 8 uptake flattens

February's trends for XP and Windows 8 were unwelcome news at Microsoft but perhaps not unexpected

For the second month in a row, Windows XP and Windows 8 defied their maker's wishes, as XP, which Microsoft just wants to go away, gained user share, and Windows 8, the OS Microsoft hopes will fuel sales of new devices, flatlined in February, an analytics firm reported.

February's trends for XP and Windows 8 were unwelcome news at Microsoft but perhaps not unexpected. In the past weeks the company has been reduced to asking customers for help in shrinking XP's still-strong presence and has reportedly slashed the price of Windows 8.1 licenses to makers of low-priced devices in an effort to boost sales.

According to Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Net Applications, Windows XP increased its share by three-tenths of a percentage point in February, ending the month at 29.5% of all desktop and notebook computers worldwide. The month before, XP had gained a quarter of a point.

The aged operating system accounted for nearly a third -- 32.5% -- of all Windows-powered PCs.

The second consecutive month of Windows XP increases in "user share," a rough measurement of what fraction of the world's computer owners run a specific operating system, was another setback for Microsoft, which has told customers to get off XP before it's retired from security support on April 8.

Because of the continued refusal of XP to disappear, Computerworld now forecasts that the OS will power about 28% of all personal computers at the end of April, and between 22% and 25% at the end of the year.

Microsoft will provide the final public patches for known vulnerabilities in XP on April 8. After that, customers will face an increasingly dangerous future where cyber criminals dig up new vulnerabilities -- perhaps by examining fixes for still-supported editions, like Windows 7 -- and unleash exploits on people who still rely on the retired OS.

With so many of the world's PCs predicted to run XP after patches stop, Microsoft faces a difficult decision: stick with the plan and risk a massive hit to its reputation if widespread attacks emerge, or back down and continue to support the operating system until more people upgrade to new devices. Neither will please everyone.

The situation is unusual: Microsoft has never had to deal with an operating system so stubbornly entrenched near its end of support. For example, when Microsoft stopped patching Windows 2000 in July 2010, the OS powered less than half of one percent of the world's PCs.

While XP grew last month, Windows 8 remained nearly flat, just as it had the month before, another reason for nervousness in Redmond.

The combined user share of Windows 8 and 8.1 gained just one-tenth of a percentage point, ending February with 10.7% of all computers and 11.8% of those running a Microsoft OS. Windows 8's gains over the last two months were the smallest since its October 2012 launch.

Net Applications' statistics, being estimates of share rather than of numbers of devices in use, are often inscrutable. The XP user share gain, for instance, probably did not mean that millions suddenly dusted off long-unused PCs and went online. But the numbers do establish broader trends, specifically that XP won't be discarded anytime soon and Windows 8 has found fewer users than its predecessor.

The adoption of Windows 8 and 8.1 continued to lag far behind that of Windows 7 at the latter's same point in its uptake cycle. Sixteen months after Windows 7's debut, it powered 24% of all Windows machines, more than double Windows 8's and 8.1's.

And although Windows 8 remained ahead of Windows Vista's pace, the gap between the two narrowed again last month, with the former now just one percentage point higher than the latter.

Net Applications measures operating system user share by tracking unique visitors to approximately 40,000 sites that rely on its metrics software.

The company's figures are often at odds with those that rival StatCounter generates because the two measure differently: StatCounter tallies "usage share" by counting page views to show how active users of each OS are on the Web.

StatCounter's Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 usage share for desktops totaled 11.8% in February, higher than Net Applications'. And the Irish metrics firm pegged Windows XP at just 18.5% and Windows 7 at 55.2%, much lower and higher, respectively.

Microsoft, which usually has cited Net Applications' numbers -- it did so again over the weekend in an email from a spokeswoman touting Internet Explorer's user share -- took to using StatCounter's last week in a press release (download PDF) that encouraged small businesses to upgrade from XP to Windows 8.1. The reason: The number StatCounter generated for Windows XP was smaller than Net Applications', and thus downplayed XP's refusal to vanish.

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