Will Windows 8 Save PC Sales? Tracking 22 Years Of Windows Releases

Does Windows History Repeat Itself?

Windows 8, Microsoft's next-generation operating system, arrives on Oct. 26, and for PC and component makers, the stakes are pretty high.

In what's projected to be the grimmest year for PC sales in the past decade, 2012 has dealt a blow to PC players ranging from Intel and AMD to HP and Dell. Microsoft's Windows 8, for many of these companies, is the light at the end of the tunnel, with a refreshed UI and new touch capabilities poised to breathe new life into PCs.

But just how much sway does Windows have when it comes to driving PC sales? According to market data, it varies. Here's a look at five major Windows releases, and the impact each had on the PC market.

Windows 3.0

Microsoft's third major Windows release, Windows 3.0, was really the first to deliver that distinctive Windows feel users have grown so accustomed to today.

Released on May 22, 1990, and installed via a good ol' fashioned floppy disk, Windows 3.0, coupled with its upgrade pack to Windows 3.1, sold 10 million copies within the first two years it was on the market.

According to Microsoft, Windows 3.0 armed users with more advanced graphics, 16 interface colors and improved icons. It also supported Intel's then-top-notch 386 processor, meaning programs ran noticeably faster than earlier iterations of the software. New Windows tools including Program Manager and File Manager made their debut in this release.

Windows 3.0 Impact

According to data jointly released by analysts at IDC and brokerage firm Wachovia Capital Markets, the release of Windows 3.0 did correlate with a jump in PC sales; shipments rose from about 5 million during the third quarter of 1990 to about 6 million in the fourth quarter of that year, after the release of the new OS.

BBC News correspondent Mark Ward pegged Windows 3.0 and 3.1 as the first of Microsoft's Windows releases to "win huge worldwide success," and believed they were the first operating systems ever to make PCs a serious contender to Apple's Macs.

Windows 3.0 was also the first software release in years that required many users to upgrade their hardware to include more memory capacity, InfoWorld reported in a 1990 article, which could have accounted for the spike in overall PC sales.

Windows 95

Released on August 24, 1995, Windows 95 marked a new milestone for Microsoft, selling a record-setting 7 million copies within the first five weeks of availability. Marketing efforts could have helped; Windows 95 was one of Microsoft's most publicized launches to date, with commercials featuring the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," thrusting the software giant's signature Start Menu into the spotlight.

With the Internet boom in full swing, Windows 95 came equipped with built-in support for the Web, along with new plug-and-play capabilities that made it easier for users to install their own software.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has drawn comparisons between the upcoming launch of Windows 8 and the much-ballyhooed debut of Windows 95. "In a sense it feels to us a lot like 1995, we have the most vibrant exciting new version of Windows in years," Ballmer said during a company event in July, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Windows 95 Impact

Windows 95 was arguably the most impactful Windows release to date.

Though sales of Windows 95 -- meaning the physical CD-ROM or floppy disk copies of the software itself -- fell slightly short of expectations, PC sales in the fourth quarter of 1995 rose roughly 30 percent because of its new OS, according to a New York Times article, citing research from market research firm Computer Intelligence Infocorp, from January 1996.

An estimated 9.9 million PCs preloaded with Windows 95 were sold during that three-month period alone, a spike Computer Intelligence Infocorp attributed to Microsoft's bullish Windows 95 marketing campaign.

Windows XP

Windows XP, released on Oct. 25, 2001, was one of the earliest releases from Microsoft to come in both an enterprise- and consumer-specific flavor.

The Windows XP Home Edition offered robust multimedia options, including Windows Media Player, Windows Movie Maker and enhanced digital photo capabilities. It also offered users a more "clean, simplified visual design," according to Microsoft's website.

Windows XP Professional, the business-focused version, delivered security features aimed specifically at enterprise IT teams, including remote desktop support, an encrypting file system, and system restore and networking options.

Windows XP was also the first Windows release to include a unified Help and Support services center.

Windows XP Impact

Windows XP, it seems, wasn't quite able to generate the same excitement as Windows 95.

According to IDC, worldwide PC shipments in the fourth quarter of 2001 -- or the quarter in which Windows XP became globally available -- were actually down 6.1 percent year-over-year. In the U.S., the numbers were even grimmer, with shipments down 8.6 percent year-over-year.

In all fairness, though, IDC did note that sales slightly piqued in the fourth quarter compared to the third, and 2001, in general, ended up being one of the slowest-selling years for the PC industry to date. Gartner, in a separate report cited by CNET, said 2001 was the only year that saw the PC market shrink since 1985.

Windows Vista

Windows Vista, which made its worldwide debut in January 2007, presented users with new taskbars and borders for a refreshed look and feel. It also came equipped with new Search functionality, allowing users to more easily sift through and locate files, along with User Account Control, a new tool aimed at helping users safeguard their PCs from potentially harmful software.

According to Microsoft's website, Vista also turned PCs into a multimedia hub, with a revamped Windows Media Player and new features for watching TV, viewing and sending photos, and even editing video.

But despite all this new functionality, Windows Vista is largely viewed as one of the biggest flops in Microsoft's history, and it even claimed the No. 1 spot on PC World's 2007 list of the year's biggest tech disappoints. Like many reviewers, PC World thought Vista felt clunky and slow compared to XP, in addition to being incompatible with a range of other software and hardware solutions.

Windows Vista Impact

Vista's impact on PC sales, according to Gartner, was "very limited."

PC sales were flying high during the fourth quarter of 2006, which is the quarter that preceded Vista's launch. Worldwide PC shipments grew 7.4 percent year-over-year that quarter, with 67.3 million units shipping around the globe

In the first quarter of 2007, following Vista's launch, there were actually fewer PC shipments, with Gartner pegging the number around 62.7 million units.

"Microsoft’s official consumer launch of Vista in January, had very limited impact on overall worldwide shipment demand on a quarterly basis," the firm wrote in a research note. "On a monthly basis, mature regions experienced a bubble in demand following its release. Vista adoption was primarily in the consumer and very small business segments of the mature regions."

Windows 7

The most recent Windows release to date is Windows 7, which first came to light in October 2009. According to Microsoft, it quickly became its best-selling OS of all-time, with nearly seven copies being sold every second by the fall of 2010.

Sure, sales could have been so quickly generated because eager Vista users were ready to jump ship, but Windows 7 did offer some totally new features that likely drew users in, such as Snap, Peel and Shake, which were new and more interactive ways to resize and compare windows on a desktop.

Windows 7 also played host to Windows Touch, enabling users with the right hardware to browse the Web or flip through photos with the swipe of their fingers. Streaming music and video from a PC to a TV was also made possible with the new release.

Windows 7 Impact

Windows 7 didn't have a major impact on PC sales when it launched in October 2009, but it did create more buzz than its older sibling Vista.

According to Gartner, PC shipments in the third quarter just prior to the Windows 7 launch were 80.9 million units. In the fourth quarter of 2009, just after Windows 7 hit shelves worldwide, PC shipments jumped to just over 90 million units.

"Windows 7 was launched during the fourth quarter of 2009. Though the new operating system launch did not create additional PC demand, the launch was a good market tool during holiday sales," said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner, in a research note.

The NPD Group further noted that the impact of Windows 7 was felt more in the desktop market than the notebook market.

Windows 8

Windows 8, the newest member of the Microsoft Windows family, has been the talk of the tech world for months now, sporting a totally revamped UI that's intended to arm PCs with a more tablet-like feel.

Microsoft's iconic Start Menu gets the boot in Windows 8, but for any users who aren't ready to give it up quite yet, there's an alternative mode that lets users revert back to a more traditional Windows desktop UI.

All of the new devices featuring Windows 8 will be touch-enabled and come in a variety of form factors, ranging from Ultrabooks to tablets to convertible PCs. Microsoft is even launching its own, homegrown tablet, called Surface, to accompany the OS release on Oct. 26.