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Maybe Windows 7 isn't growing faster than Windows 8

The numbers only tell half the story of the idiosyncrasies of the Internet.

Another month has ended, and everyone is breathlessly awaiting the latest Net Applications numbers to show what an abject failure Windows 8 continues to be. Well, they got their wish.

The latest stats from Net Applications show that in September 2013 Windows 8 gained 0.61 percentage points to account for 8.02% of computers detected by Net Applications' sensors. Windows 7, on the other hand, grew 0.80 percentage points to 46.43%. This would be the first time Windows 7 has gained more share than Windows 8 since 8 was released last year. Windows XP held on at 31.22% share.

Now, how is that possible? Well, PCs do still sell the option of downgrades. Lenovo does a very good job of downgrading and supporting its PCs and laptops with Windows 7, and Lenovo is the one PC vendor left that seems to be able to actually SELL PCs these days.

But there are other possibilities. Net Applications, as explained to me by Executive Vice President Vince Vizzaccaro, tracks usage, not installed base or sales. So it could very well be that Windows 7 machines are just being used more. September had the back-to-school rush. Perhaps a whole lot of Windows 7 machines that had been sitting idle in schools all over the world were fired up, which would explain Windows 7's apparent "growth."

For the unfamiliar, Net Applications captures user data from 40,000 client sites and millions of sensors on the Internet. Every time you connect to a site with a Net Applications sensor, it logs your OS and browser. Net Applications sensors are spread worldwide and cover both businesses and consumers.

On a more U.S.-consumer-centric front, there's Steam Analytics from Valve Software. Steam is the iTunes of PC gaming and is more or less the reason GameStop doesn't have PC games anymore. It sits in your Windows tray and lets you purchase games electronically. If you delete the game off your PC, or install Steam on a new one, you can re-download your games at no cost. It is pretty much the industry standard for PC game sales, especially for small, independent studios. Electronic Arts is the biggest player not using Steam, since it's a major competitor of Valve in gaming.

Steam's numbers are taken from the PCs out there running the app, and they paint a very different picture. It puts the Windows 7 64-bit share at 51.41%, down 0.54% for the month. Windows 7 32-bit holds 12.8% share. Windows 8, which is almost entirely 64-bit, grew 0.99% for the month to a sizable 15% total share. And in the Steam world, XP is almost extinct: it had just 6.96% share, but ironically grew by 0.13%. That just shows the quirkiness of these numbers.

So Steam shows Windows 7 holding steady, Windows 8 growing, and XP disappearing into the sunset, a completely different picture than what Net Applications shows. Why? Again, Steam is running on gamer machines at home in the U.S. while Net Applications measure who is visiting its sensors.

Even though it's a consumer picture, I like the Steam numbers because they are culled from a program that measures the population of machines using Steam. Net Applications is measuring what is coming to their sensors. It could be possible that there are large Windows 8 deployments not connecting to the internet or visiting their sites.

So how do I rectify the 31% vs. 7% population for XP? Simple. Consumers moved off XP a lot faster than corporate. A lot of businesses have yet to begin an XP migration, even though XP support ends on April 2014. Migrating an entire company to a new OS is a lot more work than upgrading one consumer PC. Plus, Net Applications casts a global net, so it is covering countries that aren't as quick to replace XP PCs as we are.

In the end, it really is difficult to find a good measure of Windows 8 usage. Microsoft can claim x million licenses sold, but we don’t really know how many replaced Windows 8 with 7.

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