Here's what free upgrades could do for Windows 9's uptake

By making Windows 9, aka "Threshold," free, Microsoft will be able to push more than half of all Windows 8 users to the upgrade within a matter of months, an analysis of user share data shows.

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By making Windows 9, aka "Threshold," free, Microsoft will be able to push more than half of all Windows 8 users to the upgrade within a matter of months, an analysis of user share data shows.

Extending the free upgrade offer to Windows 7 would have a smaller impact, primarily because nearly half of all of Windows PCs are in commercial or government settings, where upgrading is taken seriously and not left to mortals, like employees. But even with Windows 7, Microsoft could expect to convince a sizable minority to make a quick switch to Windows 9.

These calculations were based on the performance of Windows 8.1, the free upgrade Microsoft shipped in October 2013 as the follow-up to the original Windows 8 of 2012.

According to Net Applications, a California company that measures operating system user share by tracking unique visitors to its customers' websites, Windows 8.1 (free) has gained share much faster than its predecessor, Windows 8 (not free) did after its debut.

Last month, 53% of PCs running Windows 8.1 or Windows 8 ran the former, an increase of about 13 percentage points from six months prior.

Over the last 12 months, the no-cost Windows 8.1's share of the combined user share of it and Windows 8 was 8.5 times Windows 8's share of it and Windows 7 at the same point in Windows 8's post-launch timeline. Although the uptake of Windows 8.1 was front-loaded, even in August its share was 3.7 times that of Windows 8 at identical points in their lifecycles.

More importantly, it took Windows 8.1 only seven months to break the 50% mark: By May, Windows 8.1 accounted for half of the combined user share of it and Windows 8.

While that was more than three times what it took Apple's OS X Mavericks to reach 50% of the aggregate share of it and its Mountain Lion and Lion predecessors, Windows 8.1's uptake was unprecedented for a Microsoft operating system.

As Computerworld reported in March, "cheap is better than pricey, free is better than cheap" when it comes to personal computer operating systems.

With Windows 8.1 as a guide, Microsoft should have no trouble matching that cadence with Windows 9, the assumed name for what has gone by "Threshold" as a code name. In other words, if Microsoft launched Windows 9 in April or May 2015, it should be able to get at least half of all Windows 8 and 8.1 PCs (as of April) onto the new OS by the end of the year.

Figuring Windows 7's migration to Windows 9, assuming Microsoft extends the free upgrade to the former pool of PCs too, is trickier. Research firm IDC says that of the installed base of Windows PCs, approximately 55% are in the hands of consumers, 45% in commercial organizations. If that ratio applies to Windows 7 -- which accounted for 56% of all Windows PCs last month -- that means consumers' systems represent about 31% of all Windows-powered machines.

Commercial PCs would be discarded from the calculations: Businesses simply don't upgrade at the same pace as consumers. Even though they may be interested in Windows 9, they probably won't begin upgrading until 2018 at the earliest, according to Gartner, and so are off the table.

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