For What It’s Worth: Microsoft Has Sold 40 Million Windows 8 Licenses

Is the new version of Windows selling well? It's tough to tell.

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Steve Ballmer and Cassidy Masons, 12, check out Windows Vista at a Best Buy store in New York during the operating system's launch on January 30, 2007

It’s been slightly over a month since Windows 8 launched. There have been rumors that Microsoft is disappointed with the operating system’s sales. And now the company is sharing details on how the software is faring, sort of: At a Credit Suisse conference, Tami Reller, the new head honcho of the business side of Windows, has announced that Microsoft has sold 40 million Windows 8 licenses so far, a quantity that’s “outpacing” Windows 7 sales.

How does that compare to earlier versions of Windows? Well, back in 2007, Microsoft said it had sold more than 20 million Windows Vista licenses in the first month — and said that figure was more than double what Windows XP did in its first month. So Microsoft is saying that Windows 8’s first month has been around twice as strong as Windows Vista’s, and four times as strong as Windows XP’s.

Except it’s not that simple. There are more PC users than there were in 2001, when Windows XP shipped, so you’d expect sales in 2012 to be higher. And Microsoft knocked down Windows 8’s upgrade price to $39.99, far less than it’s traditionally charged for new versions of Windows, which should goose sales. And every version of Windows enters a marketplace in a different state of economic health, which presumably impacts the sales of operating-system software.

Basically, so many factors are at play that unless the number of licenses sold is astonishingly low or high, it’s impossible for those of us outside of Microsoft to know whether the figure tells us anything beyond the fact that millions and millions of people and businesses use Windows and buy Windows computers. Which we already knew.

(Ed Bott shares a useful reminder of the scale of Microsoft’s customer base: Those 40 million Windows licenses are equal to more than half of Apple’s total installed base of Mac users.)

What would be really interesting is any definitive word on how Windows 8 sales so far stack up against Microsoft’s not-for-public-consumption expectations. That we don’t know. And actually, it isn’t even entirely clear what “selling” a Windows “license” means: ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley asked, and the company declined to elaborate.

Microsoft also isn’t addressing a burning question which many of us have: How are its Surface tablets selling?

I’ve written before that I don’t think that Windows 8 sales mean much at this early point, and the forty-million license news doesn’t change that. Windows history is instructive here — a decade ago, some analysts thought Windows XP wasn’t doing that well, and it went on to be the most indomitable operating system of all time. And then, five years later, Microsoft’s crowing about early Windows Vista sales didn’t mean Vista was a success. So my advice to both Windows 8 optimists and skeptics is the same: Don’t come to any hasty conclusions. A year from now, it should be obvious whether the upgrade is catching on.