Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade to Windows 8. It’s what the original Windows 8 should have been, with important improvements for both desktop and tablet users. So why are more people using Windows 8 than Windows 8.1?

It’s hard not to see this as a failure for Microsoft. Windows 8.1 is the first “new version” of Windows they’ve given out for free to existing users and most Windows 8 users aren’t biting.

Usage Statistics

RELATED: What You Need to Know About Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 was released on October 17, 2013, over four months ago. Microsoft is set to release another significant update, known as Windows 8.1 Update 1, next month.

More people are still using Windows 8 than Windows 8.1, even after they’ve had over four months to install this free update. NetMarketShare shows 6.83% usage for Windows 8 and 4.3% usage for Windows 8.1.

We wouldn’t expect Windows 8 to vanish overnight, but it’s a shock to see Windows 8 outperforming Windows 8.1 by such a wide margin. This is especially shocking given how deeply flawed Windows 8 was and how many changes were made in Windows 8.1 to smooth out the experience for everyone.

It’s in the Windows Store, Not Windows Update

RELATED: Screenshot Tour: What's New in Windows 8.1 Update 1

Previous versions of Windows distributed updates via Windows Update. Big updates were known as Service Packs and they appeared in Windows Update alongside all the other updates. Users had one place to get all their updates from Microsoft, and they could be installed automatically in the background. Windows 8 works the same way — updates are available via Windows Update and can be installed automatically — except for Windows 8.1.

The Windows 8.1 update isn’t available in Windows Update. Instead, it’s part of the Windows Store — that’s the Store app in the new full-screen interface formerly known as Metro. Most Windows 8 users, who use Windows 8 on non-touch hardware, never have any reason to visit this app. It only contains touch apps for the interface formerly known as Metro — now confusingly called “Store apps.” The Store links to some desktop applications, but they’re only links — you have to download the application installer and install it normally, so there’s no reason to use the Store for desktop apps.

Even Windows 8.1 Update 1 will be available via Windows Update for people already running Windows 8.1. It’s not entirely clear why the updates are being distributed in two different ways, especially since Windows 8.1 Update 1 is a fairly significant update with interface changes, like Windows 8.1 was.

Microsoft Account Required

Update: We’ve been informed by a Microsoft employee that, while the update does indeed appear in the Store, it does not require a Microsoft account to download. We were apparently wrong here — in our defense, the preview version of Windows 8.1 required a Microsoft account to download from the Store and nothing else in the Store functions without a Microsoft account.

RELATED: All the Features That Require a Microsoft Account in Windows 10

Windows 8 lets you log in with either a Microsoft account or a local user account. Microsoft really wants you to log in with a Microsoft account, which is why the local user account option is buried — but many people still prefer local user accounts.

While desktop users can normally get along just fine with a local user account, Microsoft requires you log in with a Microsoft account before you can download Windows 8.1 from the Store. You can always just create a new user account, make it a Microsoft account, install Windows 8.1, and remove that account — but most people won’t do that. Microsoft is clearly betting that many Windows 8 users will opt to log in with a Microsoft account to download the update and stick with it, effectively moving from a local account to a Microsoft account.

Are Businesses Just Being Slow?

Businesses often lag behind on new versions of Windows, sticking to the tried and true rather than getting the latest software. Just witness how many businesses have stuck with Windows XP for so long and are just now updating, but to Windows 7.

So, are businesses sticking with Windows 8 rather than upgrading to Windows 8.1? We doubt it. For a conservative business, Windows 8.1 is even better than Windows 8 — it offers an improved interface for keyboard and mouse users along with the return of the Start button. Even if they’re using tablets, Windows 8.1 is a huge improvement with a more powerful Snap feature and new apps.

It’s unlikely that businesses have standardized on Windows 8 and don’t want to upgrade to Windows 8.1. Sure, some businesses may be sticking with Windows 8 — if so, it’s because Windows 8.1 sounds like a new operating system version that has to be evaluated rather than the rebranded service pack for Windows 8 that it is.

The Mac Comparison

Mac users tend to upgrade to newer versions of Mac OS X more quickly than PC users upgrade Windows. Part of this is price — the new version of Mac OS X, known as OS X 10.8 Mavericks, is available for free and all future versions will be, too. But Windows 8.1 is also free for Windows 8 users.

NetMarketShare also shows the usage statistics for the most popular Mac versions, with Mac OS X 10.8 at 2.09%, Mac OS X 10.7 at 2.13%, and Mac OS X 10.6 at 2.17%. More Mac users are using older versions of Mac OS X than the current, free version, too — so maybe this isn’t just a Microsoft problem.

Updates and Service Packs vs. Operating System Versions

Perhaps the real reason why many people are still using Windows 8 is because Microsoft chose to make Windows 8.1 a new operating system version rather than a service pack or traditional update. When Windows 8.1 Update 1 arrives via Windows Update, most Windows 8.1 users will upgrade to it. We won’t be comparing the market share differences between Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update 1 systems.

RELATED: Windows XP End of Support is on April 8th, 2014: Why Windows is Warning You

If Windows 8.1 arrived via Windows Update, most Windows 8 users would have upgraded to it by now — they’ve been trained to use Windows Update, after all.

With nearly 30% of web users still using Windows XP, the last thing Microsoft needs is to create another outdated version of Windows people will stick with. Windows 8.1 should be made available via Windows Update so Microsoft doesn’t have to keep supporting outdated versions of Windows like the original Windows 8 forever.

Microsoft chose to release a splashy new version of Windows rather than a traditional update. By raising the barrier to entry, they’ve ensured they have many Windows users stuck using Windows 8 instead of Windows 8.1. This isn’t good for anyone.

Image Credit: Pete on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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