Asking experts about Microsoft’s market share will yield a variety of statistics, opinion, and debate. Common sense tells us that specific figures for user base size are accurate and informative. But below the surface of numbers and marketing is a more complex story.
Software sales by Microsoft count three sources: boxed software on merchants’ shelves and online stores such as Amazon, installations on computers before sale (referred to as OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer), and volume sales through vendors. The first two are very inaccurate in determining the number of Microsoft software users. Counting software sold through stores includes boxes sitting on merchant shelves and storage rooms, i.e. sold by Microsoft but unused. Store purchases also don’t account for the software a customer is already using. The new software can overwrite the old software or the old software may still be put to use. Sometimes multiple purchases are made because OEM disks are lost, causing a user to be counted twice. The majority of computer vendors who sell their hardware with software installed primarily distribute Microsoft Windows. It’s been determined in federal court that Microsoft has used its desktop monopoly to arm-twist vendors into signing contracts requiring their sale of Microsoft software with their hardware. Using hardware vendor sales to count software users proves inaccurate from discounting those who replace the Windows operating system with an alternative such as Linux or FreeBSD after purchase. It also miscounts many corporations which purchase new computers and put older versions of Windows on them.
Statistics also discount those who purchased Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office but later decided to uninstall it. None of these non-users are subtracted from the software sold by Microsoft when determining user count. Even attempting to account for these sales which don’t apply to the size of the user base will prove inaccurate. A very broad survey of home and corporate users would have to be taken. A valid survey would become useless very soon after it’s taken because the share of users is likely to be changing quickly.
All of this tends to show Microsoft’s user base is smaller than most believe. In addition to the true number of Microsoft users being unknown, market share statistics are even more complicated due to the nature of Microsoft’s biggest rivals such as open source software. The nature of open source licenses promotes free sharing, which only surveys can count. Download statistics are often used to assist in determining open source market share, but barely tell more than the basic popularity of Linux distributions and software packages.
License shipment statistics can only be partly used to analyze the server market. Research firms such as IDC routinely ignore anything beyond sales figures. It’s simply impossible to account for many scenarios, such as freely downloaded software being used in place of purchased licenses, or purchasing a new Windows license but installing an older version of Windows.
Realizing the facts about Microsoft’s actual market share has implications. For corporations making a choice of software development platforms, size of the user base helps determine if something is generally considered useful and if enough knowledgeable developers can be found. Vendors and software developers should look beyond Microsoft. The software industry is alive with more competition than ever.