Counting desktop Linux users is impossible

– By Robin “Roblimo” Miller
IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky is one of the world’s most quoted individuals when it comes to counting computer operating system use, especially Linux. But when you come right down to it, he’s no more certain than anyone else just how many people use Linux as a desktop operating system.

Not long ago, Dan was quoted in an International Herald Tribune article as saying, “Linux had a 3.9 percent share of desktops worldwide, outpacing Macintosh’s 3.1 percent.” It turns out that this was a preliminary figure that didn’t make it into the final IDC report on Linux use, and that after making some adjustments based on more research into Asian markets, Dan now believes the desktop Linux market share is more like 1.7%, which is still up significantly from last year’s IDC count.


The big “but” is that, according to Dan, the 1.7% figure accounts for “paid shipments only,” which Dan readily admits may only include a small fraction of all desktop Linux installations. To begin with, he says IDC’s research shows that for every 10 copies of Linux sold, approximately eight copies are downloaded from the Internet for free, and that there may be something like 15 copies made, on average, from each downloaded or purchased copy. Not only that, Dan says he personally knows a corporate IT manager who made not just 10 or 20, but 6,000 (yes, that’s six thousand) copies from a single set of downloaded Linux CDs. Dan doesn’t know how many of those copies went on servers and how many went on desktop machines, but either way, it doesn’t take many corporate IT people installing a few thousand homemade copies of their favorite Linux distro to throw all the numbers out of whack.

Exact numbers aside, Dan says Linux desktop users “are still a tiny minority” in the world. Windows is still the Big Dog, with around 94% of all paid desktop operating shipments in the last year. Dan says IDC’s figures show Mac’s percentage is down slightly — from 4.17% last year to 3.9% this year, and that “all other” operating systems account for less than 2% of the desktop total.

Remember, all the “hard” numbers are for paid shipments only. It’s entirely possible that there are more *BSD desktop installations than IDC counted in its public figures.

Public vs. private figures

IDC is in the business of selling studies and reports, not giving them away. Dan says anyone who wants to see results of detailed operating system use surveys, as opposed to just shipment data, needs to either buy reports IDC has already written or commission his or her own study. (If you want to buy some of IDC’s reports on Linux trends, you’d better make sure your credit card limit is measured in thousands of dollars, not hundreds, before you order.) Dan hints that some of the private reports may have figures notably different than the tastes the public gets of simpler, more easily obtained data. Perhaps so. Still, Linux is nowhere near “world domination” on the desktop. Dan says that Linux’s biggest impact so far is, unquestionably, on servers. Indeed, Dan’s own home office network runs a Linux server, while his primary “work” desktop runs Windows 95, which he says is still IDC’s corporate standard, with a gradual companywide switch to Windows 2000 now in process.

Should Linux be counted as Unix?

Dan claims he’s heard this request from more than a few Unix vendors, because on the server front, Unix and Linux combined have a market share equal to Windows if not greater. But to be officially called “Unix,” Linux would have to be certified as “Unix” by The Open Group, keeper of the Unix copyright flame. So far, Dan says, “No one in the Linux community is interested” in obtaining Unix certification.

It’s rather unlikely that, say, a whole lot of Debian or Gentoo developers are going to wake up one fine morning next year and suddenly decide they want their favorite Linux distribution certified as a jen-you-wine flavor of Unix(TM). But what about UnitedLinux? After all, Caldera-turned-back-into-SCO is one of the driving forces behind this consortium, and SCO is far more of a Unix vendor than a Linux vendor. Is it possible that all those Gentoo and Debian developers — and all other Linux users and developers all over the world, could wake up one morning and find that UnitedLinux was really a kind of Unix, but that other distributions weren’t?

This could create an interesting situation, possibly even a true Linux fork, except that UnitedLinux is working toward full compliance with the Linux Standard Base — along with Red Hat, Debian, MandrakeSoft, and lots of other companies and non-profits including The Open Group itself. Would a UnitedLinux certification as “Unix” apply to other Linux distributions? If so, would anyone care besides a few SCO resellers and some of their stodgier customers? All this is just speculation, not the sort of thing Dan Kusnetzky or any other sane industry analyst would want to comment on even if we asked them.

The real Linux count

Is there such a thing? There’s always the venerable Linux Counter, but it has fewer people registered than download each new Mandrake release in the first week it goes live on the mirrors, and there’s a nice big “My guess at the number of Linux users: Eighteen million” note on The Linux Counter main page, with the link going to another page where the admittedly flawed methodology behind this guess is explained.

Linux is sneaky

Despite all those IBM ads showing Linux saving the game or whatever, and all the articles that get written about Linux, and all the Web sites — including this one — devoted to it, Linux is still an elusive, essentially non-mainstream phenomenon. It’s kind of like one of those groups that comes out of nowhere and suddenly sets album sales records even though it’s gotten little or no radio play.

The “stealth mode” aspect of Linux market penetration, especially on desktops, has disadvantages. If more hardware vendors saw Linux as a true up and comer, we’d see more Penguins on product boxes and laptop labels, and we’d certainly see more commercial software ported to Linux.

But on the other side on the coin, as long as Linux remains so elusive on the desktop and is so frequently undercounted, it means that its spread can easily be pooh-poohed and half ignored by a certain company that dominates the desktop operating system market so heavily that the U.S. government has taken it to court over its improper use of that monopoly. Personally, I wouldn’t mind Linux keeping a low profile — at least on the desktop — for several years, and suddenly jumping into prominence, with ads saying, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell running super-cool Linux,” appearing all over the prime-time airwaves all of a sudden, and full-color ads suddenly showing up in every Sunday paper advertising the latest “Linux laptop blowout” at MegaloComputerMart locations all over the world.

Until then, maybe the desktop Linux market share numbers we see in the computer and mainstream media are accurate, and maybe they’re not. I no longer care. The only desktop Linux market share figure in which I have total confidence — and the only one I really care about — is the number of Linux-running computers sitting on my desk, which just happens to be an easily calculated 100 percent.


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