Lately I've noticed something odd about the release of Windows 8.1. It's a free update to Windows 8.0, all you need to do is click a giant upgrade button in the Windows Store. However according to StatCounter, almost nobody is upgrading. Look at the desktop OS share stats over the last year, and Windows 8.0 share remained almost flat since the release of Windows 8.1, dropping only about 0.3% in the six months since its release.
This appears to indicate that Microsoft is having major problems getting users updated to the latest and greatest version of Windows. As it stands about 95% of Windows 8.0 users have not upgraded to 8.1, despite the update being free.
I can only speculate as to why this is, but here are some guesses:
- Perhaps StatCounter's data is biased or wrong, but they gather data from 3 million websites and has been a reliable indicator of usage share in the past, so it seems unlikely.
- There are major technical issues blocking the majority of users from updating. I had trouble updating my own laptop with a mysterious error code and no suggestions found from searching the web worked. Eventually a format-and-reinstall directly to Windows 8.1 worked, which is not something the majority of users would probably bother with - they'd probably rather ignore the error and get back to work. However technical issues of this scale seem likely to warrant reporting in the technical press, and I've seen nothing there, and surely such a serious problem would cause Microsoft to release a fix for the problem. On top of that Windows 8.1 is not a huge overhaul like the change from XP to Vista was, and is a relatively minor update more around the scope of a service pack. It is therefore likely to be highly compatible with Windows 8.0. So overall this explanation seems unlikely.
- Users don't care if there's an update. However I'd like to think that a free update with more features would be compelling to more than 5% of users.
- Users simply don't know there is an update. Since the upgrade is only available through the store, and does not come through automatically via Windows Update, users who avoid the much-maligned "metro" start menu and apps will simply never see that there's an update there. Embarrassingly this suggests 95% of Windows 8.0 users either never open the new Store app, or are perfectly capable of ignoring the unmissable gigantic purple "free upgrade to Windows 8.1" button. This is not actually too surprising since for years users have been trained to find updates from Windows Update, where a Windows 8.1 update is nowhere to be found. To me this seems the most likely explanation.
Why does this matter to us? The main reason is Internet Explorer.
Internet Explorer fragmentation
Confusingly, Internet Explorer 11 - a major update for HTML5 games since it adds WebGL support - is only available on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, but not Windows 8.0. I have no idea why this is. Perhaps Microsoft was expecting the majority of 8.0 users to update to 8.1 so it wasn't worth the bother. In any case millions of users are left using Windows 8.0, which probably contributes to the fact StatCounter shows that there's a sizable chunk of users still using IE10.
IE10 introduced a new "Install new versions automatically" option, which defaulted on. This gave hope that perhaps from IE10 the problem of fragmented IE versions would be solved. Unfortunately this does not appear to have happened, as IE updates still depend on OS updates - and not automatic updates, updates that have to be manually opted-in to.
Microsoft are still trying to promote IE as a modern, up-to-date browser that is moving the web platform forward. Unfortunately IE8 is still the second-most used version of IE according to StatCounter (probably because IE9+ is not available on XP which still clings on with substantial share), and IE11 is only used by about 40% of all IE users - so not even the majority of people using IE have the latest version!
IE11 has shown signs of moving to a faster release cycle, with several small updates rolling around via Windows Update lately. However there is still a significant distinction between major versions of IE, and old versions still hang around with significant shares. New versions of IE should at least be available for every version of Windows newer than the minimum, so the "Install new versions automatically" can at least make sure users really are kept up to date. IE still seems to be a far cry from the "evergreen" Chrome and Firefox with a formal six-weekly release cycle and no distinction between major versions, except for extended-support releases which get updated after a year. So in the long run no versions older than a year are in widespread use.
Microsoft like to talk about how Internet Explorer is a modern competitive browser. The latest IE11 is indeed a great browser, especially with WebGL support, and we are pleased to see that the Web Audio API is in development. However with the distribution problems we still see a browser that deploys new features years after other browsers, and then more often than not leaves users stuck with an old version. It's hard to get excited about the next version like this. Chrome and Firefox meanwhile are still available for Windows XP (and Windows 8.0 for that matter!), are often first to deploy features, and then are able to distribute the update to the vast majority of users relatively quickly. Despite Microsoft's message, we still see IE as the lowest common denominator in the advancement of the web platform on desktop, and that to ensure access to the best performance and features, you need to be using Chrome or Firefox.