Windows forecast shows XP's one-of-a-kind dominance

Windows 7 will top out at a 41% share, less than half XP's peak

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That pattern could be disrupted, of course, by any number of factors, including users refusing to upgrade to a future release, as they did with Vista, which in turn would boost the share of the just-prior edition.

Some analysts have said that's possible next year if businesses pass on Windows 8, either because they just recently migrated to Windows 7 or because they see few benefits in what experts have argued is a consumer-oriented Windows 8.

Windows' faster release cycle will also impact Microsoft, which supports consumer-grade editions for five years and enterprise editions for ten.

Currently, Microsoft supports three versions of Windows: XP, Vista and Windows 7. If Windows 8 appears in the third quarter of next year, that number will climb to four, as XP doesn't drop off the support list until April 2014. With a new version appearing every three years and a 10-year support promise, Microsoft will return to the practice of managing four editions simultaneously.

The company has done that before, most recently last year. Until June 2010, it provided security updates for Windows 2000 in addition to XP, Vista and Windows 7.

But one analyst argued that Microsoft may need to pick up the pace even more, a move that would increase the number of editions that must be supported.

"They're dealing with two competitors, one the hyper-iterative Google, which seems to always be updating its software," said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, in an interview last week.

"The other is Apple, which is logistically iterative," said Miller. "They update almost by clockwork."

Apple annually updates iOS, the mobile operating system that powers the iPad, and has upgraded Mac OS X approximately every two years since 2003.

"You're in a constant race now," said Miller of software development. "I'm not sure if every three years is often enough."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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