Microsoft claims 200M Windows 8 licenses sold, but how many are in use?

Calculations show that between 165M and 184M are being used to access the Web

Microsoft last week said that it had sold 200 million licenses of Windows 8 since the operating system launched more than 15 months ago. But how many copies are actually being used?

An analysis of available data showed that while not all 200 million licenses are powering systems that did the most basic of PC tasks -- access the Internet -- the number of Windows 8 devices in operation was much closer to Microsoft's claimed mark than nine months ago.

Last May, after analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy questioned Microsoft's then-number of 100 million licenses sold, Computerworld calculated that Windows 8 was actually being used by just 59 million devices.

How does the 200-million claim -- voiced last week by Tami Reller, Microsoft's marketing chief, at a Goldman Sachs-sponsored technology conference -- stack up?

Microsoft counts a license as sold when it provides a customer an upgrade or one of its OEM partners a copy for a new PC, tablet or 2-in-1 device, like Microsoft's own Surface Pro 2. Licenses to OEMs make up the bulk of what Microsoft sells. According to the company, the numbers it regularly cites for Windows 8 licenses exclude those sold to enterprises as part of volume licensing agreements.

But because Microsoft considers a license sold -- and accounts for it on the books that way -- as soon as a Windows-powered device comes off the factory line, it's added to the "sold" column even though a customer hasn't purchased the machine. Licenses installed on OEMs' inventory, whatever is in retail or a warehouse, or for that matter, in transit from factory to destination, count as sold.

Nine months ago, Moorhead argued that a more accurate representation of Windows 8's success -- or failure -- was to count differently. "How many Windows 8 PCs have sold and are being used?" Moorhead asked then.

If he asked that same question today, what would be the answer?

One way to figure that out is to use Web analytics company Net Applications' data, which estimates the "user share" of each operating system. Caveats apply: Net Applications' statistics are based on accessing the Internet, so it cannot account for hardware that doesn't go online, and the firm massages its raw data, weighting users by their country of origin, to come up with what it believes is a more accurate representation of operating system usage.

Net Applications counts both traditional personal computers and tablets running Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 to arrive at its monthly averages. Combine Net Applications' number with estimates or claims of the number of devices worldwide running Windows, or the same for all personal computers and tablets running a desktop OS, and one can guess at Windows 8's in-use total.

The last time Microsoft made a global Windows claim was in May 2013 when Julie Larson-Green, who then led Windows development, said there were 1.4 billion Windows PCs.

Allowing for the intervening nine months -- and the fact that most new systems are not additive, but replacements for older machines discarded or retired -- assume that there are now approximately 1.5 billion Windows devices in use.

In fact, the 1.5 billion matches the number IDC analyst Rajani Singh has pegged of "active devices, fully operational PCs, and not those that are placed in the attic or closet," a figure she said in an email included pirated or non-paid Windows licenses.

Net Applications' staked Windows 8's user share for January at 11.66% of the computers running one edition or another of Windows. Multiply that by 1.5 billion and one gets:

11.66% x 1.5 billion = 174.93 million Windows 8 devices

To check the validity of Net Applications' user share numbers and in-use hardware, one can call up a Dec. 6, 2011, Microsoft claim that there were then 1.25 billion Windows PCs. Alongside the 1.25 billion data point, Antoine Leblond, a vice president of Windows Web services, said Microsoft had sold 500 million licenses for Windows 7.

Number of Windows 8 devices in use
Microsoft's claimed it has sold 200 million Windows 8 licenses, marked by the red bar at the left. The others are various estimates of actually-in-use machines. (Data: Microsoft, Net Applications, StatCounter, IDC, Benedict Evans.)
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