Numbers, Downloads and Straws

Fedora 10 has been released, got many good reviews, while Mac sales are still up and this is not even the Holiday Season. The other day, this article caught my eyes. What it is essentially saying is that the download numbers for Fedora. It only takes into account the IP addresses and one version of Fedora. It seems, based on these numbers, that Fedora users amount to a solid 9.5 million bunch.


This would make Fedora a Linux distribution with an user base comparable to Mac users. I understand that there are inherent uncertainties and inaccuracies in the method of counting the users. Besides, downloads are a relatively relevant factor in assessing any software’s adoption. However, Fedora’s counting methods does eliminate a great deal of doubles and failed downloads by recording only static IP addresses. It remains nonetheless inaccurate, but does capture a pretty telling picture of the situation.


GNU/Linux distributions have rarely been counted like one counts the licenses of Microsoft licenses of Windows. There is a very simple reason for this oddity: Very few OEM dare to sell computers with any distribution installed. First, GNU/Linux distributions used to be something for nerds, and second, even when the market “took off” for them hardware vendors would not have put their relationship with Microsoft in peril. The history of pressures against OEMs by Redmond is well-known.


So this left the industry, the analysts and the press in a complete ignorance of the true numbers related to operating systems. I am not saying that Fedora numbers are accurate. In fact, something that could tell me they are is that by claiming at least 9.5 million users, they are essentially claiming that their community is larger than the one of Ubuntu, the supposedly most popular distribution out there. How do we know it is? Canonical is making up pretty much a synthesis between the number of CDs it sells and the downloads it serves. And Canonical claims 8 million users. Another, quite empirical tracking of the users of GNU/Linux distributions is the Distrowatch website. On the right side of their pages you will see a ranking of distribution based on how many static IP addresses visit their website once a day. Here again, this has nothing of a scientific measurement, but it has been surprisingly accurate over longer periods of time (1 year or even 6 months) in terms of measuring the trends inside the world of Linux distributions. In short, Distrowatch measures what wasn’t thought possible to be measured: the ZeitGeists and trends inside the FOSS community. Over the last few years, Distrowatch has ranked Ubuntu the most popular distribution ever. Fedora right now is at the fourth rank, one it has been around for the last few years as well.


This piece is not about deciding who among the Fedora project, Ubuntu or Distrowatch is right. It is about an industry that has acknowledged the power of FOSS and GNU/Linux on the server but refuses to see that although the Emperor is not walking naked, it definitely is not dressed that well.

If we take the Fedora numbers, divide them by two and do the same with the numbers of Ubuntu, that would give us an impressive number for “an operating system for hobbyists”. But what we should not forget in that count is the other distributions. Take for granted that today I will not bug you with the ones that are in the southern section of the Distrowatch rankings. But what about OpenSuse, Mint, Mandriva? Let’s put them at one million each and ignore the rest of the candidates. Together with Ubuntu and Fedora, this estimate that I would qualify as conservative (when should I stop cutting and dividing those numbers to sound serious?) makes GNU/Linux not the distant third, but the second most used operating systems behind the Windows family. Remember me when you’ll read the next analyst report stating the immaturity of Linux on the desktop. These numbers make sense, and we should think about them. They mean something is happening, and it does so by flying under the radar. All the more interesting to watch, I guess.


Don’t open up the champagne, folks; this is just the beginning….

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