How many desktop Linux users?

So how many desktop Linux users are there? If you believe in Net Applications' numbers it's just over 1%. If you want to buy W3Counter's numbers, 2.16% of users use Linux. Or, if you want to go by my own Web site, Practical Technology's AWStats statistics, 29.9% of desktop users prefer Linux.

The truth is we really don't know how many Linux desktop users there are. That's a pity because those numbers do matter. The more Linux desktop users there are, the more likely it is that ISVs (independent software vendors) and PC manufacturers will support desktop Linux. If Linux is to ever stop being considered a 'niche' desktop operating system, it needs more than just users, it needs an accurate way to count those users.

Web site surveys are all well and good, but they only tell part of the story. And, as the numbers I cite above shows, Web site numbers show an enormous range. Some of that may represent bias. The Boycott Novell Web site, for example, recently proclaims that Net Applications' operating system numbers are a "Big Lie" and pointed out that Microsoft was one of Net Applications' biggest customers. My own site focuses a lot on Linux, so it's no surprise that I have a high percentage of Linux-using visitors.

If Linux was a conventional, commercial operating system, we could just count PC sales, but that doesn't work here. The vast majority of Linux PCs didn't come with Linux pre-installed.

We can, however, count downloads. For example, by late 2006 Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu said that there had been 8-million downloads of Ubuntu. But, you can't just assume from that number that there were 8-million Ubuntu users in December 2006. I've downloaded dozens of different versions of Ubuntu myself over the year up to the newest one, Ubuntu 9.04, and I'm only running two instances of Ubuntu at the moment.

The research firms, like Gartner and IDC, focus on servers and enterprise desktops. As a result, their numbers really don't reflect the reality of the Linux desktop.

So, can we do anything more than make an informed estimate?

Actually, yes we can. Cole Crawford, a Dell Linux engineer, has created a program statix that can anonymously track the number of Linux desktop users.

Statix is a client/server program. It uses a Python client and a hosted Python CGI (Common Gateway Interface) back-end to track Linux desktops. Statix doesn't track personal information. It's a simple program that's only job is to let a central server know that a Linux desktop is alive and working at a given Internet address.

Statix is an open-source project and needs support from both developers and distributions. Once completed, and deployed by the major desktop Linux distributions, we'll finally have some hard data on the total number of desktop Linux users. Besides just being interesting in its own right, this is exactly the kind of information ISVs and hardware vendors need to decide if Linux is just a nice, niche operating system or one that deserves their time, money, and attention.

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