The Most Popular Desktop Operating Systems Since 2003
Mobile phones might be the most common way of getting online today, but the digital and internet era started for most people with the humble desktop computer.
And over the past 20 years, a long list of operating systems (OS) have been used to run the most popular desktop computers.
Sjoerd Tilmans has created an animated chart showing the rise and fall in market share of popular desktop operating systems over the period of May 2003 to June 2022, using data from W3Schools and GS Stat Counter.
Microsoft’s Monopoly on the Most Popular Desktop OS
The story of the desktop OS market is a story of Microsoft’s explosive growth and market dominance.
In the 1980s, the fledgling company signed a partnership with personal computer behemoth IBM. Microsoft would supply IBM with an operating system for its computers, MS-DOS, and receive a royalty for every computer sold.
Those royalties boosted Microsoft’s coffers. And its release of Windows—a more visual interface than DOS—helped them grab hold of the PC market. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw different versions of Windows capture the market:
- Windows 95:
The now famous toolbar and Start menu made their debut here. The version also would launch Internet Explorer, once the world’s most popular browser.
- Windows 98:
An upgrade to ‘95 which supported more hardware like USBs and connecting more than one monitor.
- Windows XP:
XP quickly became a fan-favorite because of its stability, and a hit with both commercial and personal computer clients. Windows XP gained market share steadily upon release in 2001, quickly becoming the most popular desktop OS with a peak of 76% market share in 2007.
|Operating System||Peak Market Share||Year|
Microsoft doubled down on their next releases from the end of the 2000s to 2020, with some misses (Windows Vista) and some hits (Windows 10). Here’s a look at the most popular ones:
- Windows 7:
Released as the successor to the poorly received Windows Vista, it kept the same visual style (“Aero”) but greatly improved performance and stability from Vista’s benchmarks. In 2011, Windows 7 passed XP to become the most popular desktop OS.
- Windows 8 and 8.1:
Created for tablet-desktop integration, just as Microsoft released the companion Surface tablet. The beloved Start menu was replaced (an unpopular decision) and tile-based visual style introduced. However the dramatic differences between the desktop and tablet versions made for a steep learning curve, with the 8.1 release reintroducing the Start button.
- Windows 10:
The follow-up to Windows 8 kept the the tile-based appearance but focused on a desktop-oriented interface with quality of life updates. By 2018, Windows 10 had become the most popular desktop OS, eventually peaking at 61% market share at the start of 2022.
|Date||Peak Market Share||Year|
The most recent version of Windows released, Windows 11, had updated graphics styling, widget integration, and introduced Microsoft’s latest internet browser Microsoft Edge. But it received a mixed response and slow uptake compared to Windows 10, gaining a market share of 8.3% by June 2022.
Microsoft Vs. Other Desktop OS Contenders
As of February 2023, Microsoft had a comfortable lead in the desktop OS market, holding nearly 72% of the market.
|Company||OS Name||Feb, 2023 Market Share|
In a distant second is Apple’s macOS. The most profitable company in the world might make most of their money from smartphones, but Apple has still managed to carve out a small but sturdy segment of the desktop operating OS market. It reached its peak of 19% in April 2020.
The other tech giant in the desktop OS game is Alphabet, whose ChromeOS is unique for using an internet browser (Google Chrome browser) as its primary interface. Generally packaged as a simpler and cheaper device option—it was primarily released with inexpensive laptops called “Chromebooks”. More recently, Alphabet announced a version that can be installed on existing computer hardware in 2022.
Compared to the commercially released OS above, Linux is completely free to download and use, and is the largest open-source software project in the world. Although the OS is only used in about 3% of desktop computers, it was also the basis of Android and ChromeOS, and is the most-used OS on devices with embedded software—routers, smart home devices, cars, and even a few spacecraft (The SpaceX Falcon 9, for example).
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