After weathering a rough year with Windows 8 as the face of its PC products, Hewlett Packard launched a new promotion over the weekend that puts Windows 7 PCs front and center.
With a banner declaring Windows 7 PCs are "back by popular demand," the company's website is currently offering up to $150 off certain models preinstalled with the four-year-old OS.
To an extent, HP's promotion is simply a canny marketing move timed to piggyback on Windows XP's looming end-of-support deadline, now less than three months away. But it also reinforces that manufacturers aren't confident of the demand for certain Windows 8.1 products.
By pushing Windows 7, HP is extending the strategy it's employed with business customers. For the many enterprises that migrated in 2013 off of Windows XP, Windows 7 presented a smoother and more cost-effective transition. Even though Windows 8 has dominated HP's consumer lineup for the last year, Windows 7 has remained a core option for commercial customers.
[Which tablets ruled last year? Read 10 Best Tablets Of 2013.]
According to Net Applications, almost 30% of desktop traffic was still coming from Windows XP machines at the end of 2013. A share that high means businesses aren't the only holdouts. As tablets and smartphones have grown more capable and PC upgrades more incremental, many consumers have delayed PC purchases and OS upgrades.
Now forced to upgrade or lose most support from Microsoft, owners of XP systems represent a market opportunity, and many of them will find Windows 7 more familiar and welcoming than Windows 8. It makes sense for HP, which never stopped selling Windows 7 PCs as it ramped up Windows 8 inventory, to shift its marketing to target different market segments. Right now, it's reasonable to infer there are Windows XP users who want Windows 7 machines. That's not particularly distressing for Windows 8.1; it's just the ebb and flow of technology and marketing.
More troubling for Microsoft is this: Windows 8.1 tablets have posted only incremental progress, and Net Applications found that Windows 7 gained more desktop users last month than Windows 8.1 did. The subtext is that many users prefer that their PCs behave like PCs and that their tablets behave like tablets. Windows 8.1 tries to deliver both experiences in a single package regardless of device, and the market simply hasn't been interested.
By trumpeting that Windows 7 is "back by popular demand," HP is speaking not only to XP clingers, but also this second group: people who want a PC that acts like a PC. There's a market for Microsoft's flavor of convergence but so far, it's been a niche market, not enough to support the device strategy of a large company like HP. Whereas XP's retirement represents a short-term marketing opportunity for Windows 7, long-time desktop users' dearth of enthusiasm for Windows 8.1 is a farther-reaching trend.
HP has felt this trend acutely; 2013 was rough for the entire PC market, but according to the research firm IDC, HP absorbed the biggest drubbing among major players. Lenovo shipped more units in 2013 than in 2012, and Dell managed to gain share by outperforming the market. HP, in contrast, suffered a worldwide shipment drop that was slightly worse than the industry's average. In the US, it shipped 9.4% fewer units, much worse than the market's 3.6% aggregate slide.
Windows 8.1 isn't solely responsible for the PC industry's woes. But with both Android and Chrome OS invading HP's laptop and all-in-one desktop lineup, it's become hard to deny that Windows 8 and 8.1 have underperformed, and that the company is hedging its bets accordingly. Execs from various OEMs have criticized Windows 8 over the last year, but HP CEO Meg Whitman was particularly pointed in October, the same month Windows 8.1 was released, when she characterized Microsoft as a rival.
None of this means HP is dumping Windows 8.1. On the contrary, even with the ongoing promotion, HP is offering only a handful of Windows 7 options. Windows 8.1 encompasses HP's largest range of products, by a healthy margin. At some point in the future, one of these Windows 8.1 devices will surely supplant Windows 7 in HP's marketing limelight.
But once upon a time, Windows could constitute the foundation of a manufacturer's entire device strategy. With Windows 8.1, that no longer seems to be the case. When Windows Vista tanked, some OEMs began hyping PCs that ran the previous version, Windows XP. Windows 8.1 has often been compared to Vista, and HP's new campaign only reinforces the similarity.
Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. Michael graduated from Stanford in 2005 and previously worked in talent representation, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher.
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