Microsoft this morning announced that Windows 7 has reached 350 million licenses sold in 18 months on the market. It’s an impressive number on the surface, but absent any other context it’s hard to get a sense for what the number actually means. Here’s my best attempt to put it in perspective based on some quick research.

Over the same 18 months, IDC reports a cumulative total of about 517 million PC shipments, based on data gleaned from the research firm’s quarterly reports. (Gartner pegs the market slightly higher, at 523 million shipments.) In other words, as a proportion of total PC shipments during the time of its availability, Windows 7 licenses are at 68 percent, based on IDC data.

[An important aside before we continue: That percentage figure doesn’t correspond to operating system market share, in part because not all computers ship with operating systems pre-installed. (Update: Continued shipments of older, non-Windows 7 versions during that time frame are a larger factor.) I’m using it as a benchmark in this case to get a sense for how Windows licenses track against the overall growth in the PC market. Windows’ overall share of the OS market is much higher.]

Is that good or bad? By comparison, Windows Vista had sold more than 180 million licenses at its 18-month mark, according to a Microsoft regulatory filing at the time (Page 23). Over the same time period, from Q1 2007 to Q2 2008, IDC shows about 400 million worldwide PC shipments. In other words, as a proportion of total PC shipments during its first 18 months on the market, Windows Vista was at 45 percent — considerably lower than the Windows 7 data announced by Microsoft today.

So Windows 7 is kicking Windows Vista’s butt. No surprise there, really.

But what about Windows XP’s first 18 months? I haven’t yet been able to find similar PC shipment and OS licensing figures dating back to early 2003, which would have been the 18-month mark for that Windows version.

However, one news story from that time notes that Windows XP had grabbed 34 percent of the market after 18 months, based data collected from Internet users. Within the same population, Internet users, Windows 7 currently has 27 percent of the market — not far behind, but not as well as Windows XP was doing at the same point in its life cycle.

More telling is that, by the same measure, Windows XP right now — in 2011, nearly a decade after its release — still has 54 percent of the worldwide market, judging from the computers people are using to connect online.

This is an imprecise exercise, a back-of-the-napkin kind of thing. Feedback welcome on my methods and reasoning.

Bottom line, Windows 7 is doing well, especially when compared with Vista. But it still needs to exorcise a certain ghost from the past.

Update: Charles Arthur at the Guardian does a nice job of picking up where I left off and finds that the comparable number for Windows XP licenses in its first 18 months was 54 percent of PC shipments — considerably less than Windows 7’s 68 percent, giving the new Microsoft operating system the best growth rate. Very interesting stuff, worth a read.

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  • Tyson

    You rightly noted that Windows 7 kicks Windows Vista’s butt. People can’t wait to get off of Vista and onto the newer version. So, when comparing Windows 7 to Windows XP, it might be relevant to think about how eager people were to get off of Windows ME. Anyone care to compare the ME->XP switch to Vista->W7?

  • Anonymous

    who cares about XP any more. win7 is a smashing hit and outselling every version of any OS ever made in the only measure tha matters: total sales, not % of market. comparing percents is a futule excercise that is not even scientific or provides any statistical value. After all microsoft doesn’t (or any company) charge for their products on a % of market, but as a unit sale. So all this % study while amusing it will not really take the wind out of windows 7’s sails either or reduce the huge amounts of cash that is generating.

    The fact of the matter is XP is decline droping like a stone, and win7 is taking off like a rocket. 350 million is 350 million, today, 10 years ago, or 10 years from now. profits are what matter and they are measured in units. Win7 is a success.

  • EasyDestination

    Its really amazing how all the tech writers on internet try to find something negative about Microsoft even on good news.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not about finding something negative about Microsoft, it’s about trying to understand what’s actually happening. We try to do this whenever we can, no matter the company or the story.

      Put another way, would you really rather have stuff like this reported verbatim from a company with no context or reality check? Sorry, but that’s a pretty incredible complaint … you might want to rethink.

      • Brandon LeBlanc

        Todd, maybe a couple of little smiley faces in your articles might change the tone a bit? ;-) Smiley faces in blog posts are awesome.

        • Anonymous

          Brandon, you’re right, that’s totally the problem! :-)

          Or should I say, ;-)? Then again, maybe it’s just :-|.

          OK, just kidding. Seriously, :-)

  • Reader

    How is MSFT faring against Apple in new computer sales, including tablets? Interesting data. One challenge in comparing against XP is that, I believe, people are holding onto their computers longer.

    • Mergathal

      Sadly, people are jumping a little on the Apple Bandwagon and it will come back to bite them. You spend an average of 10%-50% more for an equivalant machine that people think is more secure but if you look at Cisco’s 2010 security report, since 2006, apple is has been even less secure than Microsoft. Apple sends far less time on security and too much time thinking up gadgets and it is coming back to bite them now.

  • Guest

    Congratulations to Microsoft! Windows 7 has reinvented the venerable operating system and remains the market leader.

  • EdmarTech

    Whatever the case, it is still a success. You can see that at the way how people are embracing Windows 7 unlike its predecessor, Vista.

  • Jamesmourek

    How come April issues of PC and Official Microsoft magazine out olf England both provided disks for the rebooting of Window’s 7. May own crashed; can’t accept any of the older XP files, and, I spent about 350bucks to get computer geeks to fix BIOS and reboot.

    The oldest XP machine also crashed, as did the newer of the two. Out of the box the newer XP wouldn’t open (in Windows Movie Maker) the earlier clips created; and, after transfering files compiled all of them minus accompanying photos on file covers.

    Also, when rebooting the program doesn’t intuitively repair program on the same drive; rather, creating a seperate partition or booting up on the mechines second drive……never gettting rid of the old malfunctioning tandum programing; confusing file opening placement and function.

    Lots of weird puzzling interconnectivity muddles.

    Just who is running Microsoft; anyone who cares anymore??

    Google routinely opens it Droid (smartphone) webpage for Microsoft in the Mobil foremat; curiously, one then CAN NOT get from there to MSN’s full website, because the geniuses over at Microsoft never included a access from their official Mobil site, (ie: no porthole; check it out if you doubt it)!

    And, how come (corporately) after making 20billion+ for over 15years Microsoft only has a 5 dollar Book Value. It obviously serves no purpose to have their officers buying back stock annually IF they also sell OFF as well. Let them add those funds to Book Value and exit if they wish; at least funds would stay put rather the being annually scarfted away the company employees.

    Time for them to pay up and create value (ie: stop selling huge stock positions themselves). Their stock hasn’t moved up in over Two Years!

    I’m a stockholder who thinks they shoulod Stop Milking Microsoft and start paying attention the stockholder value and actually taking responsiblity for RUNNING the company!

  • Anonymous

    How many units of Win7 are being sold to replace an OS that was so abysmal and buggy (Vista) that MS should have issued refunds to each and every purchaser? Take those Win7 sales away and then you’ll have more of a “true” number.

    XP is still on so many businesses’ computers. Most IT consultants and IT Managers advised against installing Vista. Now that MS has a decent product on the market, we may finally see a migration away from XP.

    Consider how long XP has been the OS of choice?

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