The 1% Linux myth

EVERY year, some bozo comes up with a prediction that Linux on the desktop is dead.

These people really ought to know better, but it’s fun to get a rise out of Linux users, and a provocative headline does wonders for page views.

I’ve decided not to play their game, so I’m not even going to name the fathead columnist who raised this issue again, and focus instead on why he’s wrong. That way, the truth gets out without benefiting the cynical purveyor of the lie.

The biggest lie being perpetuated is that Linux accounts for only 1 percent of the desktop PC market and will thus wither and die. People who spread this lie usually refer to Net Applications, a company that analyzes Internet traffic on their sites and comes up with market share statistics for browsers and operating systems. Over the years, this company has consistently shown Linux with no more than 1 percent of the market.

But what specific Web sites does Net Applications monitor? The official explanation only says that it analyzes the traffic from the Web sites of its own customers, who pay for its Web Analytic services.

“We collect data from the browsers of site visitors to our exclusive on-demand network of HitsLink Analytics and SharePost clients. The network includes over 40,000 websites, and spans the globe,” Net Applications says.

Unfortunately, this approach is skewed in favor of Windows because the sites that pay to be counted cater to such users. Conversely, Linux-oriented and other technical sites are unlikely to hire the services of companies such as Net Applications.

Worse, Net Applications cannot escape the fact that companies in effect pay to get counted. Among its biggest clients, we find, are Microsoft and Apple, which, according to the Net Applications statistics, hold about 86 percent (all Windows) and 6 percent (excluding iOS) of the operating system market.

A more global and neutral analysis comes from the multilingual Wikimedia Foundation, which tracks traffic on the various versions of Wikipedia and associated sites. A traffic analysis for February 2012 shows Windows and the Mac still leading the way (73.8 percent and 8.48 percent) but Linux with a far more respectable 4.9 percent of the market, way above the 1 percent doldrums that Net Applications has kept it at.

Unfortunately, the Windows- and Mac-focused press ignores these statistics and unquestioningly passes off the Net Applications findings as gospel truth, without looking deeper into how it gets its data. A lie repeated often enough thus becomes the truth.

Of course, the problem with Linux has always been in its measurement. Because most distributions are free, the number of desktop users is difficult to quantify. Still, we have some rough figures to go by. Red Hat, the world’s biggest Linux company, claims 24 million users for its free Fedora distribution, while Canonical, which sponsors the popular Ubuntu distribution, says it has 12 million users on the desktop. The numbers for these two distributions alone have been growing, not shrinking, and their user communities remain vibrant – hardly the picture of a moribund desktop operating system.

The danger in the 1 percent marketshare lie is that some unscrupulous writers are using it to convince folks they shouldn’t even bother trying Linux on the desktop because it’s destined to die. As a satisfied Linux user who dropped Windows six years ago, I’ve documented all the benefits I’ve enjoyed first hand since taking the leap: 1) A fast, secure and robust operating system; 2) Zero licensing costs—all the software I use is free and legal; 3) No viruses and other malicious software; and 4) An extensive library of high-quality applications on par with commercial software – also free.

For benefits such as this, the German city of Munich migrated from Windows to Linux in 2004 and has since reduced both IT costs (saving $15.6 million) and user complaints. For these same benefits, the government of Iceland is pushing the shift to open source Linux, with 32 secondary schools already moving from Windows to Ubuntu Linux.

In these economically challenging times when individuals and organizations can realize real savings while using a robust IT infrastructure, it is the height of irresponsibility to advice your readers to “do yourself a favor and stick with Linux servers (because… the desktop) OS market is a two-horse race.” That’s not good advice; it’s just horse manure.


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  1. Fact Checker says: - reply

    What’s sad is that you are totally misrepresenting Wikipedia’s statistics, either accidentally (which makes you sloppy), or deliberately (which makes *you* unscrupulous).

    The “4%” figure you cite for Wikipedia includes Android. Wikipedia’s actual figure for desktop Linux is 1.5%.

  2. Chin says: - reply

    Fact Checker: Thank you for pointing out that Android, which is based on Linux, accounts for about 3.4 percent. I assure you I am neither sloppy nor unscrupulous, because Wikimedia makes no distinction in its OVERALL listing (In order of popularity, Operating System), but DOES list iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, etc. separately in the same list. It does break down Android under its Linux statistics, however.

    The problem with people who assume one thing or another (you are either sloppy or unscrupulous, etc.) is that they accept no other possibility beyond their narrow views and make their opinions known in the most disagreeable (or offensive) manner. “If you are 1 percent to 5 percent of the market (whichever number you wish to believe), forget about it.” That is the conclusion I reject and find absolutely abhorrent.

  3. Willy Fojas says: - reply

    Being a long time Unix and Linux user myself, its continued stymied growth continues to frustrate. Not that it has to be evangelized, or that its proponents have a vested interest in purposely keeping it obscure, but it seems that Linux straddles the same divide that exists between Geek products and nerd products. The hipsters fawn on iOS (itself rooted in Unix) and the nerds, well they do what they do, as the important yet marginally understood tend to. And for the huddled masses/non early adopters, who come around, who do they follow? They can’t know any better, can they?