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How many people are really using Vista?

written by: John Lister•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 8/25/2008

Microsoft has made many claims about Vista sales. We explore the figures, why they could be misleading, and how many people are actually using the system.

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    How many copies has Vista sold?

    During a media conference call after Microsoft’s last financial figures were published, chief financial officer Chris Liddell said the firm sold 40 million copies of Vista between April and June this year, taking the total figure to 180 million so far.

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    So does that mean 180 million people are using Vista?

    Not necessarily. After the official withdrawal of XP on 30 June, several retailers began taking advantage of a loophole which allows them to charge a standard price for a computer with Vista installed, but to then allow customers to ‘downgrade’ to XP. (This works in the same way that you can sometimes save money off the list price of a computer by choosing not to get ‘standard’ components such as a mouse.)

    Other retailers as selling Vista machines but including an XP ‘recovery disk’. Officially this is a back-up measure in case the user wrecks their copy of Vista beyond repair, but users wanting XP can simply install it straight away. And some buyers are simply getting a new Vista machine and installing a boxed copy of XP which they still have.

    However, in all these situations, the buyer has still bought a license to run Vista, and Microsoft logs it as a ‘Vista’ sale. Officially this is to simplify administration, but it also serves to produce the highest possible figure for Vista sales.

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    So how many people are using Vista?

    It is impossible to say for certain. There are plenty of figures being thrown around, but many of them are based on speculation and people’s limited personal experiences.

    The first major figure based on actual facts came from the InfoWorld website, which runs a project called Windows Sentinel. This involves computer users installing tracking software which monitors their PC’s performance and tells them about potential problems. The project then gathers together data from all the participants to build up an overall picture of how well different Windows set-ups report.

    The team behind the project recently looked at this data and found that around 35% of the computers they would expect to be running Vista were actually running another system, suggesting the users had ‘downgraded’. If that figure held true for everyone, only around 117 million of the 180 million Vista ‘owners’ would actually be running the system.

    However, there are some serious limitations on this data. The 35% figure likely includes people who’ve switched to Microsoft’s server products or even Linux (though of course they’d still not be using Vista). It’s based on a small sample group (the project only involves 3,000 total computers). And most significantly, it only involves people who’ve joined the project, meaning it’s likely to be biased towards people with a particular interest in technology and PC performance – exactly the people most likely to go through the hassle of changing their operating systems.

    The only truly accurate way to measure Vista use would be by analyzing the figures from the monthly Windows Update process, which will be able to measure what system is running on almost every Windows compute. The problem is that only Microsoft has access to these figures, and they likely won’t release them unless they tell a positive story.

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    Will sales pick up?

    Analyst Benjamin Gray of Forrester Research says sales will likely quicken during 2009, largely because people replacing old computers will have to get Vista enabled machines if they want Windows (and the XP downgrading may become more difficult). Other factors could include Microsoft’s advertising improving Vista’s image, and more people getting higher-spec computers more suited to Vista.

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    Do the usage figures really matter?

    In a sense, it makes no difference to Microsoft as they get the cash for every copy of Vista sold, regardless of whether it’s actually used. However, reports of people continuing to use XP are bad news for the company. That’s partly because it highlights genuine problems with Vista, and partly because it creates a poor image and makes other people wonder if they should also downgrade to XP.

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    Images

    Total Vista sales (based on Microsoft announcements)