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How many people are really going to skip Windows 7?

Headlines abound suggesting that the majority of people are going to avoid Microsoft’s new operating system — but it might not be over for Bill Gates and friends just yet.

Here are a few headlines for you: “Six in 10 companies in a survey plan to skip Windows 7”, said Reuters; “Majority of IT execs have no plans for Windows 7”, said IDG. PC World, meanwhile, said that “most IT pros say ‘no'”.

It’s certainly great, incendiary stuff: after all, Microsoft is the world’s biggest software company, and it is pinning an awful lot on the launch of Windows 7. And if 60% of IT departments are giving the new system the finger, then that’s a big deal.

But the truth revealed by the survey in question — commissioned by ScriptLogic, and largely about how companies are cutting costs during the recession — is a little more prosaic than that.

Certainly, the basic numbers have been reported correctly: just 5,4% of respondents said they were planning to have Windows 7 in use by the end of 2009, with a further 34% suggesting that they would be there by the end of 2010. A total of 59,3% of respondents said they had no immediate plans for Windows 7.

What missing though, as ScriptLogic also points out, is the context. Those numbers are actually pretty good in historical terms: the planned adoption rate for Windows Vista was about the same, while for Windows XP actual takeup was no more than 14%.

I’m not batting for Microsoft here — I’ve wondered out loud plenty of times about Windows 7’s chances — but it’s worth taking a look at reality and wondering why there’s such triumphalism with analysis that isn’t supported by the numbers. We all know that Microsoft takes a lot of kicking, but over at ZDNet, the ever-sensible Ed Bott suggests that “for today’s jaded technical press and pundits, anything less than 100% adoption, overnight, is a colossal failure”.

Given this data, one would think the technical press would be reporting the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this survey: Even in the midst of the worst worldwide recession in recent memory, Windows 7 is shaping up to be one of Microsoft’s biggest success stories ever. Right?

Plenty of this is a problem of Microsoft’s own doing — Vista, after all, had such a torrid time that plenty of people are watching for another misstep. But Vista’s problem wasn’t that people didn’t want to upgrade — it was that when they entered a world of pain when they took the leap.

I suppose it’s fair enough to call out the headlines — our own Ben Goldacre likes to skewer this sort of stuff in science reporting. But the real truth behind all this, though, is that actually these numbers mean very little anyway — however you interpret them.

What companies say they will do is often very different to what they actually do. It would be worth coming back to the same survey group at the end of 2010 and finding out who had upgraded and who had not: that’s more crucial than what they say they plan to do in 18 months. – guardian.co.uk

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