Windows by the numbers: Windows 7 storm looms as retirement milestone nears

How to hold on to Windows 7 for the long haul

Windows 10 will replace the aged Windows 7 as the most popular version of Microsoft’s operating system in September, according to the rise and fall of the two editions’ user shares.

But that won’t be the end of Windows 7. Those same trends argue that when Microsoft declares Windows 7 obsolete – and thus, no longer provides it with security updates – the operating system will still account for more than a third of all copies of Windows then in use.

Those projections are derived from data published by analytics vendor Net Applications of Aliso Viejo, Calif., which on Monday revealed the December numbers for Windows 7, Windows 10 and other OSes. Net Applications’ user share is an estimate of the percentage of the world’s personal computers powered by a specific operating system.

Using the 12-month averages of Windows 7’s and Windows 10’s user share changes, Computerworld projects the fall of the former and the rise of the latter over the next two years.

(Windows 7’s support officially expires on Jan. 14, 2020, or just a tad more than two years from now.)

The cross-over moment – when Windows 10’s share of all Windows PCs exceeds Windows 7’s – will come in September 2018. According to the 12-month trend, Windows 10’s share that month will reachj 45.7%, while Windows 7’s will skip to 45.5%. After September, the Windows 10 and Windows 7 lines will continue to diverge as the first keeps climbing and the second keeps dropping.

In that linear progression, Windows 7 will sport a robust user share of nearly 39% in January 2020. At that time, Windows 10 should power approximately 61% of all Windows laptop and desktop PCs.

It’s unlikely that reality will mimic this simplistic model; operating systems aren’t adopted or discarded in such a straightway fashion. Instead, the migration rate from old to new usually accelerates as the end-of-life date approaches. Or migration speeds up, slows down, then speeds up again.

Take Windows XP as an example.

In the final 12 months before its 2014 retirement from support, from May 2013 to April 2014, XP’s user share fell by an average of 1 percentage point per month. But in the 12 months prior to that stretch – May 2012 to April 2013 – its share slipped by an average of just 0.65 points, signaling that XP dumping accelerated in the home stretch. (To really mix things up, in the 12 months from May 2011 to April 2012, or the third-to-last year of support, XP’s share plummeted by an average of 0.81 percentage points, or at a rate about midway between that of the two following years. Go figure.)

By this forecast, Windows 7’s rate of decline, call it the speed of the get-off-Windows-7-train, won’t be fast enough to zero out the OS by the time Microsoft pulls the security patch plug. That’s not a surprise, as the 2009 operating system has lagged behind the pace of Windows XP’s migration train for quite some time.

But the Net Applications’ numbers hint at a potentially huge problem, because the portion of Windows PCs projected to remain on Windows 7 come January 2020 is significantly larger than what remained on XP at its retirement and is also larger than what Computerworld calculated two full years before Windows XP’s deadline.

In April 2014, when Microsoft rescinded Windows XP support, that version accounted for about 29% of all copies of Windows worldwide. Currently, the best-guess for Windows 7 at its end-of-support is a full 10 percentage points higher.

But that’s not even the half of it.

In 2012, two years before XP shuffled off the support scene, Computerworld, using the same 12-month trend that produced a 39% user share for Windows 7 in January 2020, figured that XP would have a mere 17% in user share at retirement. The fact that Computerworld‘s back-of-the-envelope forecast for XP was off by 12 percentage points does not make for much confidence in the 39% mark for Windows 7 in 24 months.

In other words, today’s calculation may be significantly lower than the reality of 2020.

Microsoft has at times resorted to some of the same name calling it used in 2012 for Windows XP when it has talked about the venerable Windows 7, which remains the stock enterprise OS. A year ago, for example, the head of Microsoft Germany said Windows 7 was “long outdated” and argued that the operating system did not meet “the high security requirements of IT departments.”

Expect Microsoft to ramp up that line of attack as Jan. 14 approaches, when Microsoft is almost certain to remind customers that the Windows 7 drop-dead date is two years away and closing fast.