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Windows XP gained market share in January (or did it?)

Windows XP gained market share in January (or did it?)

According to Net Applications, use of the aging system has actually increased--just before official Microsoft support is slated to end.

Microsoft is almost ready to put Windows XP out to pasture, but the popular operating system refuses to die. The latest worldwide numbers from Net Applications show Windows XP market share actually grew by 0.25 percentage points in January, compared to the month previous.

This is the first time Windows XP has gained in market share based on Net Applications' freely available data, which reaches back to 2009.

We've dropped a line to Net Applications to see if the company has any explanation about why Windows XP might have bounced back in January, and we'll update this story accordingly.

With the deadline for Windows XP's end of life looming in April, it's tempting to see the old system's apparent resurgence as an embarrassment for Microsoft as Windows 8 stumbles in the market place. But could there be another, less sinister reason for the bounce?

The surge may not be real

First, if you look at the top of Net Applications' report for January 2014 it says, "This report contains preview data that has NOT been reviewed by Quality Assurance." So there's that.Also, StatCounter, a a competing metrics service, registered a 0.64 percent decline for Windows XP during the same time. So who should we believe?

Perhaps neither. There are problems with how Net Applications and StatCounter measure market share. Both companies rely on browser hits to determine OS popularity, so the companies are really counting the number of Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, and 8.1 computers that go online during a given month.

That method may be generally accurate since today's PCs (including Windows XP machines) are essentially web browsing machines. But when you're looking at modest gains for a particular flavor of Windows, relying on browser data may not be perfectly trustworthy.

But what if it's true?

Assuming Net Applications is spot on, it's also easy to see why a bunch of Windows XP machines might suddenly go online. As I wrote above, Windows XP's end of life is just around the corner on April 8. When that happens, Microsoft will cease delivering security patches for the system.

So enterprises and small businesses may be yanking old Windows XP machines out of closets, warehouses, and backrooms as they take stock of company hardware and any data stored on antiquated computers.

Factor in curious home users wondering if they can upgrade their machine to Windows 8 or install a Linux variant on their aging hardware, and it's easy to see where the modest uptick came from.

That's all speculation mind you, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

The XP problem

Nevertheless, it's undeniable that Windows XP still has a massive install base, second only to Windows 7. It's likely there will still be a huge user base for Windows XP later in 2014, and tech companies are preparing to support the system in a limited fashion after April.

To help out Windows XP users who refuse to quit, Google will support Chrome for Windows XP until April 2015. And Microsoft says Windows XP's anti-malware engine will continue to get updates until July 14, 2015. But security software can only detect malware attacks, and won't permanently fix any critical flaws after April 8--and there will be flaws in Windows XP, bet on it.

If you do plan on sticking with the aging OS, we've just published a primer on what you should do to remain as safe as possible with Windows XP. But if you're able to quit the system, you should do so very soon.

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