Dramatic jump in Windows 8.1 usage bodes well for Windows 10

Windows 8.1 showed strong growth in October, and an easy upgrade path to Windows 10 could hold the key

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As Gregg Keizer at Computerworld reports, Web usage numbers from NetMarketShare state that usage of Windows 8 and 8.1  went from 12.3 percent of the market in September to 16.8 percent, up 4.5 percent, in October -- a huge jump, by any metric. At the same time, Windows XP usage fell off a cliff, from 23.9 to 17.2 percent, down 6.7 percent.

While industry pundits offer several reasons for the tectonic shift, several points seem to have fallen through the cracks, including one that bodes well for the future of Windows.

Let's all agree up front that the statistical methodology used by NetMarketShare is far from infallible. As I explained a couple of years ago, you can't take these number as gospel. There are too many sources of sampling error, too many lapses, and too much massaging going on behind the scenes to hang your hat on any specific report.

StatCounter, for example, shows XP usage went from 10.7 percent to 9.2 percent over the same time frame -- a significant downtick, but nowhere near NetMarketShare's cliff. It also showed Windows 8 plus 8.1 share went from 13.9 percent to 14.7 percent -- not exactly yawn-inducing, but certainly far from the leap of faith that those with allegiance to NetMarketShare seem to be scaling.

The October numbers from NetMarketShare don't smell right for another reason. They show that Internet Explorer 11 has gone from 17.1 percent to 24.1 percent -- another huge jump -- while IE8, the former reigning champ, fell from 22.2 percent to 17.3 percent. Of course, IE8 is the last version of IE that works on XP, so any blips in measuring Windows may taint browser numbers as well.

Also note that, whichever set of numbers you consider, Windows 7 online usage actually increased from September to October. NetMarketShare says that Windows 8 (alone) went up a bit, from 5.6 to 5.9 percent, while StatCounter says Windows 8 went down precipitously, from 5.3 to 4.4 percent. Go figure.

NetMarketShare and StatCounter use wildly different measuring techniques, but both are saying XP is going down, while Windows 8 plus 8.1 is going up -- significantly -- in the past month.

Some of the reasons for the change are obvious: Companies are burying XP machines by the truckload; most consumer machines nowadays run Windows 8.1 (hard to believe that Newegg now offers refurbished Surface RT machines -- the original billion-dollar bomb -- for $190); students -- many of whom were armed with new machines -- went back to school in September; Windows 8 has had two years of carpet-bomb advertising.

Some argue that companies are upgrading from Windows XP to 8.1 in large numbers, but that certainly doesn't match my observations. Windows 7 continues to be the corporate gold standard, as far as I can tell, with companies begrudgingly absorbing 8.1, mostly on a BYOD basis, but sometimes based on a senior exec who truly believes in an 8.1 future.

Here's another data point. I'm seeing a large increase in inquiries from people who want to know whether, if they buy a Windows 8.1 machine now, will it run Windows 10 in the future? When I tell them not only yes, but hell yes, Myerson promises that it'll work, their affection (or at least tolerance) for Windows 8.1 seems to go up several notches.

The folks at Microsoft no doubt have memories long enough to remember the ugly "Windows Vista Ready" lawsuit, where Microsoft was pilloried for making bait-and-switch promises about Vista that didn't come true. It seems unlikely that we'll see a similar "Windows 10 Ready" hardware endorsement for the coming holiday season. But based on everything I've seen to date, it looks like Windows 8.1 machines will have an easy upgrade path to Windows 10, sometime next year.

Hard to believe that Windows 10 may be the best Windows 8.1 sales promo possible.