March 7th, 2013
So this doesn’t really surprise me much, as I’ve been saying for a while that the year of Linux on the desktop is never going to come because the desktop is a dead play now, but it is sadly interesting, I think.
A propos of a Phoronix ‘discussion’ on the Mir shenanigans, I took a quick look at a couple of the more commonly-cited surveys on desktop OS usage over several years. The commonly-heard claim that Canonical had provided some kind of huge turbo boost to Linux adoption was made in the thread, by gamer2k: “You know what Canonical/Ubuntu brought Linux? Public Awareness. In the mind of the consumer, Ubuntu = Linux. If Ubuntu never came around, Linux would still be in the same state in was in 2005, holding <.5% market share, nothing more then a toy OS." Okay, that's a pretty silly way of putting it, but it's a claim that's often made by more sensible observers too. So, is it true? Here's the numbers I looked at:
The netmarketshare numbers only go back to 2008, but w3schools go back to 2003.
NMS says that in January 2008, Linux usage was at 0.72%; in February 2013, it sits at 1.04%. The number jumps around rather a lot in the middle, but it hits 1% as early as March 2009 and peaks at 1.13% in May 2010. There clearly isn’t a linear growth trend after 2010.
Over the same period, Windows usage declines from 95.26% to 81.18%, and Mac use jumps from 3.73% to 6.17%. iOS goes from 0.07% to 7.22%, and Android from zero to 3.37%.
So according to NMS, Linux did grow – slightly – between 2008 and 2013. But that growth was basically done in 2010, and it has stagnated since; and both the growth and absolute usage numbers are worse than OS X, Android, and iOS over the same period.
What does w3schools say? Much the same.
Their earliest numbers are March 2003 – Linux 2.2%, Mac 1.8%, Windows all the rest. By the time the first Ubuntu release was just about to show up, September 2004, Linux was up to 3.1%, with growth over that 18 month period smooth: contrary to popular belief, Linux use was growing at a constant rate prior to Ubuntu’s emergence, according to these numbers. At that time, Mandrake was the most popular Linux distribution for ‘regular desktop use’, occupying the spot Ubuntu occupies now.
After the emergence of Ubuntu, the growth rate actually appears to decline quite a lot, from 2005 through 2008. The number at the end of 2004 is still 3.1%; by the end of 2007 it has reached only 3.3%. Growth picks up again a bit over 2008, 2009 and 2010: by the end of 2010, Linux use has hit 5.0%. Linux usage finally peaks at 5.3% in the middle of 2011.
Basically, though, Linux use is stagnant after the end of 2010. It hovers around 5%. The February 2013 number is 4.8%.
Just as we see with NMS, there is no huge growth in desktop Linux use; since the emergence of Ubuntu, it has grown only slowly, and apparently slower than it was growing prior to the emergence of Ubuntu (exactly contrary to the argument that’s often made). As with the NMS numbers, the last few years seem to be entirely stagnant.
Again, over the same time period, competing OSes do much better in the w3schools numbers. From September 2004 to February 2013, Mac OS usage jumps from 2.6% to 9.6%.
As a former Mandrake/iva employee and long-time desktop Linux user this doesn’t make me happy, but it doesn’t surprise me, and I think it’s important to keep it in mind. According to the numbers we have, Ubuntu has not been the raging success some of its supporters would like to see it as. It hasn’t done much (if at all) better in increasing Linux usage than its predecessors as the pre-eminent desktop distribution, despite maintaining pre-eminent status for rather longer.
Edit: To be fair I should, of course, point out that the two projects I’ve been working on all that time – Mandrake/iva and Fedora – clearly haven’t set the desktop operating system world on fire either. To whatever tiny degree that’s my fault, I suck. Again, I’m not boasting, here. Just looking at the numbers, and the arguments.
Edit 2: also worth pointing out that this line of argument actually supports Canonical’s current focus on supporting phones and tablets. I think that’s correct, too – that’s the current active space. It’s a very tough one to break into, and I’m not sure it’s going to work, but at least they’re trying.