Some (sad) numbers on how Linux desktop adoption is going

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: Net Market Share

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.

28 Responses

  1. Stephen Smoogen
    Stephen Smoogen March 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm | | Reply

    Another point to add.. the size of the markets have grown in different ways which makes the numbers weird. So by sales numbers there are 4->10x as many android phones and iphones as there are desktops in use. However by the statistics the size of the market measured by those is tiny. So I guess the sites they use to measure from don’t get a lot of traffic from phones or something else is up.

  2. Andrew Ter-Grigoryan
    Andrew Ter-Grigoryan March 7, 2013 at 8:20 pm | | Reply

    Desktop is far from a dead play (though the traditional desktop metaphor is on the exit … . I will probably use a desktop as long as I live. For several reasons, my next PC will be a desktop, not a laptop (I rarely ever needed the portability). And I HATE using a smartphone for computing … the tiny form factor really kills it for me. 90% of what I use my smartphone for is for calls, texting, and taking notes. And I only switched from my basic phone because I wanted to get rid of pocket bulge.

    Let’s hope what the Canonical (and Mozilla) smartphone platforms bring us is more freedom, not just a third or forth consumer option in the crowded smartphone market.

  3. emmet.curran
    emmet.curran March 8, 2013 at 3:05 am | | Reply

    hopefully the emergence of steam onto the platform will draw a few more people over. most peeps i know won’t switch cos they can’t play their favourite games on linux without some leg-work.

    a mate wanted to get the tux item in TF2 recently, so he installed ubuntu on his spare laptop and had a go. steam installed fine, so did TF2 – but when he tried to run it he got an error message which meant nothing to him. he asked me and i realised it was his ati drivers, he just needed to install them. i pointed him to several guides on how to do it, both through the repos and manually…. several hours later he managed to get the driver installed, started the game, got his tux item, and formatted the drive vowing never again to use “that terrible operating system”

  4. Stan ala 'Xeno'
    Stan ala 'Xeno' March 8, 2013 at 3:31 am | | Reply

    On general note of Uber-distro that saves Linux desktop idea.
    Even if make killer-distribution, with “most-awesome tm” DE, you sill won’t make year of Linux desktop.
    Example of Windows, Android and iOS shows clear what matters are tons of applications. WindowsXP, being oldest/ugliest (‘tho maybe not most clumsy) desktop is still doing great, because it runs most of the apps people need.
    For every thing you might wanna do on your computer there’s Win app for it.
    Assuming the greatest desktop stronghold is business, Linux lacks software to do “real-work”. Things that let you run shop, doing accountancy, manage human resources, CAD programs designed for specified users (architects, mech. engineers), and so on. We lack even few software/web-development tools. Hell , few weeks ago I was searching for something to recover deleted mails from Thunderbird. There were dozen programs for Windows and none for Linux.
    Kinda ironically thing that could do much more than our imaginary Uber-distro is closed-source Steam.

  5. Doug Huffman
    Doug Huffman March 8, 2013 at 7:39 am | | Reply

    I ran Panopticlick on my new Fedora as I escape from Windoze. I noticed the indication of linux frequency in their sample.

    Your OpenID implementation is corrupt.

  6. Neil Darlow
    Neil Darlow March 8, 2013 at 9:38 am | | Reply

    I think that the biggest hurdle to Linux adoption on the desktop is that it has to be installed by the end-user (yes, I know there are some vendors who sell pre-installed systems but they aren’t well known to the marketplace).

    Microsoft has a perceived advantage in being able to ship a version of its operating system with large numbers of x86 hardware sales. Apple is pretty much a closed-shop with its own ecosystem of proprietary hardware and software. With either of these vendors operating systems the end-user doesn’t have to do a single thing with newly purchased hardware to start using it.

    The GNU/Linux installation experience isn’t sufficiently flawless to give to the average end-user. Can you really expect your ageing aunt to comprehend Fedora 18s new graphical installer and produce a working system unaided? I think not.

    Perhaps we have to accept that GNU/Linux will only appeal to a subset of users with technical ability who will either use it themselves or make it available to their circle of family and friends.

  7. Lyman
    Lyman March 8, 2013 at 9:57 am | | Reply

    As someone who had to learn Unix over 20 years ago I have to put in my thoughts…
    Linux has always been a Hobby System and it seems, to me at lest, it will never grow to anything more.
    I have been looking for a Linux alternative for my aging desktop and Netbook for several months.
    I have not found one suitable, although I have had some luck with a few.
    The problems as I see them:
    – There are simply too many Distros, some with too many flavours (Very confusing)
    – As stated above there is liitle software to Work with (I have to Work in a Windows or Mac environment, neither of which I like)
    – Most Distros that saY they support older systems do not, or do with three days work to get a trackball or networking to work
    Sadly, I will have to get a new machine and to remain productive, it will be Windows.

  8. crf
    crf March 8, 2013 at 10:46 am | | Reply

    What about TVs or PVRs?

  9. Ridgeland
    Ridgeland March 8, 2013 at 5:34 pm | | Reply

    I’ve kept a spreadsheet for several years downloading the monthly numbers from

    My take is that from w3schools the only interesting shift is that more visitors are using Apple software.

    From the Net Market Share number though there are two very interesting jumps in the data. I’m traveling and don’t have the spreadsheet on this laptop, but I recall that MS share was doing it’s usual slow drift down and a spike happened where Apple dropped 3% and MS gained 3%, right around the point when MS first dropped to 90%. Then then slow drift down continued. Then another big shift up for MS occurred, NMS moved anything “non-PC” out of the Windows numbers. Then the MS share continued it’s slow drift down. Those two data spikes both in favor of MS leaves me feeling that NMS may be on the MS payroll.

    W3counter has been more consistent over time.

    If you’re going to print articles about reading tea-leaves you should include Distro-Watch and it’s page hit rankings, totally BS.

  10. Amal Banerjee
    Amal Banerjee March 8, 2013 at 7:32 pm | | Reply

    While the numbers look sad, there is absolutely no reason to feel disheartened. Much to the irritation of MS, Linux is all
    around us, and going strong. Leaving aside the hefty servers,
    I can’t think of any embedded device that is not Linux powered. Coming from the telecommunication industry, I know that almost all common telecommunication devices (ADSL modems, cable modems etc.,) are Linux powered. Even RTOS makers as Wind River have their own Linux version to cater to this market. Hand held devices are overwhelmingly Android which is Linux at the core. Most importantly, a lot of young people in Third World countries are getting used to Linux and liking it — take for example an engineering college in say India. To save costs, the administrators use Linux on bare metal. Cheap,
    reliable and efficient — Microsoft stands nowhere.

  11. misc
    misc March 9, 2013 at 1:13 am | | Reply

    While the numbers indeed show a different view, I can only say that since Ubuntu was there, I have seen a few people who I would not have believed to try Linux to use it. So I am a little bit surprised by this disconnected between my experience ( ie getting non technical people to run a Linux based system almost by themself ), and these numbers.

    The only explanation I have for now is a sad one. We have managed to get lots of people coming to Linux desktop due to the work of Mandriva, Suse, Red hat, Canonica ( cause yes, people saying that Canonical did all the work is just ignorant ), but then, there was enough people leaving to others platforms to negate the growth. That’s the only way I could reconcile the 2 view for now.

    So now, what happened around 2005, regarding operating systems ? OS X got ported on intel processor for retail markets. IE, Mac laptop started to be more competitive, cheaper, running likely more games, and with a more mature system ( due to the 5 years of existence of the os ). So maybe there is more people that did like Miguel, got tired of their own fiddling and moved there ( I have called that the elephant graveyard syndrom, people start to have less time for running debian testing/unstable, but cannot refrain themselves from fiddling, so they switch to a system they cannot break instead of just not doing it ).

    I do not think that’s something that would have been unavoidable, but since Canonical arrived out of nowhere at the same time and kinda steamrolled the market for desktop Linux distribution with their dumping, the market got less competitive and so people put less money in it, thus less growth.

  12. pyluyten
    pyluyten March 11, 2013 at 4:56 am | | Reply

    very interesting entry. Once Ubuntu gathered so much users it would have been logical this become THE unique linux distrib’ ; if Ubuntu only stayed as the biggest, then there are reasons.

    Just an optimistic note! if the market share stays, it means the number of people increase. ok we know every project is understaffed, but at least there are much users to bug report. (yes i wrote “optimistic”, not “blind”)

  13. nicu
    nicu March 11, 2013 at 7:25 am | | Reply

    On a side note, the initial premise was Canonical/Ubuntu brought public awareness to Linux and my empiric evidence seems to confirm it: while the number of Linux has not increased dramatically, way more people *heard* about Linux than 10 years ago and will not look funny when you say you use it.

    As the main topic, I have to agree with Xeno above: it’s all about the apps. People use their computers to get some task done and for that they want apps. Which are the “killer apps” for Linux on the desktop? And if they are not scared away enough by the lack of familiar apps, we scare them even more with unfamiliar interfaces like Unity or GNOME Shell.

  14. bucegi omu
    bucegi omu March 26, 2013 at 12:51 am | | Reply

    If I am not mistaken, the stats from Net Market Share are completely rubbish, because they only count the usage inside of companies registered with them and nothing else (especially no home usage).

  15. Sri
    Sri April 13, 2013 at 1:14 am | | Reply

    Computing with Smartphone is annoying with a tiny interface. I will always use my desktop or laptop.

  16. Mishael Stephenson
    Mishael Stephenson December 3, 2015 at 11:34 am | | Reply

    I am pretty young, being born in the late 90’s, and I will always be using a laptop and/or desktop, I hate using a phone

  17. Melody
    Melody May 11, 2016 at 6:01 pm | | Reply

    You can only compare operating systems for actual computers: laptops, netbooks, desktops. A tablet, a phone, a “device” is NOT a computer, it just wants to be one when it grows up.

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