Linux desktop market share: Small no matter how you measure

Counting desktops isn't easy, but use common sense and good numbers

It doesn't give me any pleasure in saying this, but the evidence is overwhelming that Linux is not huge on the desktop. Saying it has maybe 1% of the desktop marketshare is probably not realistic, but not as far off the mark as we'd like.

Measuring Linux market share is not an easy task, especially not on the desktop. Most Linux users don't buy Linux pre-loaded, they download Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, openSUSE, or another distro from a series of mirrors, BitTorrents, or share CDs. No matter how you count up, though, the total number is pretty small compared to the number of desktops in use.

A lot of folks are bandying about a 1% figure, citing Web statistics and so on. Caitlyn Martin, over on O'Reilly Broadcast, says that the 1% figure is a myth, and goes on to argue that "Educated guesswork probably puts Linux at close to 10%, just about even with MacOS. That is a far cry from 1% and is in no way insignificant."

I'd love to endorse Martin's conclusion of 10%, but it doesn't seem realistic at all to say that Linux has 10% of the desktop market. I take many stats with a huge grain of salt, but the Wikimedia stats that sample traffic hitting Wikipedia in June of this year show Linux with less than 2%. I trust that Wikipedia has no reason to game the numbers. Wikipedia and its sister sites are pretty popular across a broad demographic, so I don't really think that the site is hugely out of whack with the rest of the population.

One comment on the stats, if you dig in, you'll see that Android is only 0.16% of the traffic, while the iPhone OS is geting 1.49%. Current sales reports suggest that Android is outselling iPhones, but this doesn't take into account user behavior. To put it another way, I suspect that Android users are spending less time browsing the Web using their phones than iPhone users — though I don't have anything but anecdotal evidence to support that. This isn't likely to be true for desktop Linux users, though, who probably tend to be online as much as if not more than their Mac and Windows-using counterparts.

Back to the numbers. For a more sunny picture of the Linux desktop, you can turn to w3schools OS stats, which give more cause for optimism. According to the w3schools stats, Linux weighs in with 4.9% of the market — which if we're generous and round up to 5% still falls very short of Martin's 10%. The w3schools audience, folks who are highly interested in Web development, are more likely to be using Linux than the average population.

Martin's numbers are a bit shaky. She argues that Linux accounts for about 32% of the netbook market, and then says that Dell reported a third of their netbooks sold were machines running Linux. But the netbook sales for 2009 are but a tiny droplet of all desktop computers in use, even if Linux is commanding a third or more of that share.

The 10% figure? Martin chalks that up to "educated guesswork," which doesn't pass muster.

I tend to agree that Linux is being used by more than 1% of desktop users, but anything over 5% is probably stretching it. You also need to take into account that many people who use Linux are not doing so exclusively. Many people have more than one computer, or dual boot to use Windows and Linux, or Mac and Linux.

The numbers do matter. Not just for bragging rights, though that's nice as well. Computer OEMs and hardware vendors take the stats into account when deciding whether to support Linux. If Linux was cresting in the neighborhood of 10%, one thinks that Dell and others would have taken notice and would be promoting their Linux offerings a bit more vigorously, instead of burying them deep in the site. This is a chicken and the egg problem, too — Linux is unlikely to hit double digits without support from a major vendor, and the vendors are hesitant to disrupt their relationship with Microsoft by pushing on Linux too hard. A cynic might even argue that Dell, et. al., only offer Linux on a select line of machines to keep their options open and have a tougher negotiating line with Microsoft on licensing.

The future is not grim, though, and some vendors are not afraid to promote Linux. They're just not in the desktop market. Asus started strong, but has largely dropped Linux on its netbooks. IBM talks big about desktop Linux, but doesn't actually sell desktops anymore.

Mobile manufacturers, however, are embracing Linux in droves. The surge in Android devices is enormous, and Linux is in the hands of millions of consumers as we speak. The way that people are doing their computing is changing, and many folks are finding happiness with Linux on phones and (soon) tablet computers. Even if we never see the "year of the Linux desktop," we will see Linux on the majority of consumer computing devices in the near future as mobile devices displace PCs and laptops for many people.

The mobile statistics will be much easier to track as well, as the carriers and vendors of mobile devices know very well how many devices are sold and roughly how many are still active.

The 1% figure may well be a myth, but 10% is a fairy tale.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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