That 100 million sales figure for Windows 8? Don't believe it.

Micrsoft's announcement that it has sold 100 million licenses for Windows 8 is impressive sounding but misleading. It represents the number of licenses shipped, but not actually bought. There's plenty of evidence that not nearly that many copies have sold and are in the hands of users.

Tami Reller, Microsoft Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Financial Officer, said yesterday in a Microsoft blog that "We recently surpassed the 100 million licenses sold mark for Windows 8." She claims that the number is on par with the sales rate of Windows 7 at the same time in its life cycle.

That certainly sounds like Windows 8 is a resounding success. But there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. For example, IDC's latest report says that PC sales for the first quarter of the year were down 13.9% compared to a year previous. That's the worst drop IDC has recorded since it began tracking the quarterly PC market in 1995, and the fourth straight quarter that PC sales have declined year-on-year.

IDC says the reason is not just the growth of tablets and the worldwide sluggish economy -- it says Windows 8 has seriously depressed sales. Bob O'Donnell, IDC Program Vice President, Clients and Displays said:

"While people like the general look and feel of the tiles, they’re also very confused and frustrated by the lack of start menu and spend a lot of their time in (traditional) desktop mode. So the bottom line is I think they have created a situation where it's very difficult for people and people who have a PC that works just fine are saying it's confusing, it costs more money and I don’t really need it."

So how is it possible that Microsoft claims Windows 8 to be a resounding success, but analysts say it's a bust?

The key is that many of the Windows 8 licenses have not yet been bought by consumers or companies. So Microsoft may have shipped 100 million licenses to OEMs,  retailers, and companies, but people simply aren't buying them.

The New York Times points to one problematic area for Windows 8 -- sales to business customers. The Times writes:

While the 100 million licenses for Windows 8 sounds impressive, that figure does not indicate how many people are actually using the new operating system. That is because a significant portion of Microsoft's Windows sales occur through multiyear contracts with business customers, who are allowed to pick which version of the operating system they run on their computers.

So while business customers who signed such deals since Windows 8 came out are counted among the licenses sold, many may have downgraded to Windows 7.

How many have downgraded? Microsoft doesn't provide those numbers. But the number of licenses given those rights may be substantial. The Times quotes IDC analyst Al Gillen saying that an estimated 40 percent of Windows sales are to customers with downgrade rights.

(Note: ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley claims that the 100 million figure doesn't include volume licenses. If I can get clarification, I'll provide it.)

As for consumers, there's plenty of evidence that they're not buying Windows 8 PCs in droves. If consumers were buying lots of Windows 8 PCs, that would show up in overall usage numbers. But the latest Net Applications figures show Windows 8 with a 3.82% market share in April, up from 3.17% in March. In January it was at 2.26%. If 100 million people were using Windows 8 PCs, those numbers would be much higher.

Forrester Research's David Johnson explained to  ZDNet:

"It's been clear that consumers are confused by Windows 8. I would be very surprised if the consumer adoption of Windows 8 was on par with that of Windows 7 at this point."

So while it's true that Microsoft may have shipped 100 million licenses for Windows 8, there's a reasonable chance that a good-sized portion of those licenses have not yet been bought or used by customers.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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