Windows by the numbers: Maybe Windows 7 doesn't want to retire

With the countdown on to the January end-of-support date for Windows 7, the aging operating system doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast.

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Windows by the numbers: February 2019

When the groundhog saw his shadow last month, it wasn't a signal of an early spring but a hint that Windows would have one of those upside-down stretches.

Violating the cardinal rule of newer Windows editions, Windows 10 dropped the most user share since March 2018, making for a confusing picture about how customers' migrations are proceeding. Meanwhile, the already-supplanted Windows 7 added share to its total last month, erasing more than half of the end-of-the-year dramatic decline that at the time seemed to show a quickening pace toward its retirement.

According to web analytics vendor Net Applications, Windows 10's share fell by six-tenths of a percentage point in February, ending the month at 40.3% of all personal computers and 46.1% of all PCs running Windows. (The second number is always larger than the first because Windows does not power all personal computers; in February, Windows ran 87% of the world's machines. All but a small fraction of the rest ran macOS, Linux or Chrome OS.)

Windows 7 added user share for the second straight month, gaining a whopping 1.2 percentage points to rebound to 38.4% of all PCs and 43.9% of those running Windows. At the same time, the should-be-dead Windows XP put on six-tenths of a points during February, climbing to 3.3% of all PCs and stretching to 3.8% of systems powered by Windows.

All in all, it was a mess. Windows 10 was supposed to be growing but it wasn't. Windows 7 and Windows XP were to be shedding share, but they weren't. Windows overall has been losing share, surely if slowly, but instead it gained.

The last time Net Applications' numbers were so odd was March 2018, a month where Windows 10 lost eight-tenths of a percentage point, Windows 7 gained 1.8 points and Windows XP grew by eight-tenths of a point. But within two months, the normal march upward (Windows 10) and downward (Windows 7, XP) resumed.

Expect the same after February's mysterious up-and-down, which like all single-month exams of OS analytics, are susceptible to oddball data or weird shifts in the browsing habits of those who happened to be monitored by Net Applications.

Keep an eye on the long-term forecast

Even though Windows 10 and Windows 7 traded usual behaviors last month, the former stayed well ahead of the latter in overall popularity: 46.1% versus 43.9%. There's no danger of Windows 10 losing its grip on the No. 1 OS position.

With the latest data, Computerworld's forecast - based on each operating system's 12-month average movement - now pegs October as when Windows 10 should reach a majority. That forecast puts Windows 10 at 50.4% of all Windows after Halloween.

But Windows 7's backwards maneuver in February could result in more machines still running the OS when Microsoft retires it Jan. 14, 2020; when Windows 7's support ends, it should be powering more than 40% of all Windows PCs. Windows 10 should be running 52% of the same group.

The first number - the projected user share for Windows 7 at its retirement - is higher than its January forecast because of the share increase last month. Windows 10's predicted share is lower than the previous projection, down four points due to the February decline.

Although Net Applications' numbers are not gospel, failing Microsoft's publication of detailed statistics from its incoming telemetry they're the best available. And increasingly the data paints a picture of Windows 7's stubbornness. If more than 40% of all PCs in January do run Windows 7, as the forecast foretells, the situation would be even more problematic than when Windows XP reached retirement powering about 29% of all Windows systems.

That Windows 7 benchmark - 40.5% of Windows PCs running it at retirement - could either be interpreted as a rabid endorsement by customers or a denunciation of its successor, Windows 10. Or both. But the simplest explanation might be that users are much more uncertain of changing operating systems when the new standard upends the update/upgrade model. It may turn out that millions of Windows users will refuse to abandon Windows 7's traditional refresh practices, security risks be damned.

Elsewhere in February's results, the overall user share of Windows rose to 87.4%. In the zero-sum OS share game, that meant the combined share of all macOS and OS X editions had to fall: It did, to 9.7%. For the second consecutive month, Linux's user share slipped by three-tenths of a point, while Google's Chrome OS stayed flat. Those OSes ended February at 2.1% and 0.4%, respectively.

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