The Linux Marketshare Myth


A recent report from NetMarketShare has made a bit of a stir by claiming that Linux’s userbase has finally broken 1% of the desktop market. Some of the reporting on this news has put a tongue in cheek spin on it, while others have dismissed it as a reporting fluke and point to the data collected by other firms which doesn’t necessarily agree with the assertions of NetMarketShare (though all reports do admit to an upward trend in the Linux userbase).

Diehard Linux fans will tell you this is yet another indicator of the mythical “Year of Desktop Linux”, the long-promised point where desktop Linux finally breaks into the mainstream and starts gaining momentum. Many analysts predicted the rise of the netbook would finally bring Linux to the average user, as at first the only netbooks you could get were running Linux as a way to cut down end user cost. But an aggressive netbook-specific pricing scheme by Microsoft allowed manufacturers to start delivering competitively priced netbooks powered by Windows XP, which combined with some media reports of higher consumer return rates on Linux netbooks versus their Windows counterparts, managed to steal away the best shot Linux had of making it into the average user’s conciousness.

Now in 2012, after being available for 18 years, Linux has just managed to capture its first percent of the desktop OS market. It seems pretty clear that we will never see the “Year of Desktop Linux”; good thing it doesn’t matter anymore.

Death of the Desktop

The desktop computer as we know it is on its last legs. While the power and upgrade paths offered by desktop hardware will always have its place in certain circles, the average user is increasingly abandoning the big beige box in favor of smartphones, tablets, game consoles, set top boxes, Internet TVs, and all other manner of Internet connected devices. As we move away from the concept of the monolithic personal computer and into a more diverse collection of devices, we also move away from the undisputed king of the desktop: Microsoft Windows. Even Microsoft sees the writing on the wall, as Windows 8 is not only going to sport the same touch optimized user interface as Windows Phone 7, but will also be able to run on ARM powered devices (think tablets and smartphones).

But perhaps for the first time in history, Linux isn’t the underdog this time around. In fact, Linux is the market leader. That’s because, whether the end user knows it or not, the majority of this new cornucopia of devices is already running some form of Linux under the hood.

It started with the TiVo, the first major piece of consumer electronics that shipped with a Linux operating system. Linux’s inclusion in the TiVo was a very big deal, and showed the fledgling little operating system had a place outside of servers and the occasional desktop. In fact, TiVo running Linux was so significant that it got the attention of the Free Software Foundation and helped shape future versions of the GPL, though that’s a tale for another day.

The success of the TiVo lead to other similar set top boxes (often branded by individual cable or satellite providers) that also ran Linux. With millions of these devices in the wild, it wasn’t long until other manufacturers started to realize the potential for rapid development that Linux offered, and we started to see our favorite penguin show up in everything from digital picture frames to MP3 players.

Google Takes Charge

While Linux was making excellent headway sneaking into homes through DVRs and smart alarm clocks, they where still all fringe cases. Sure a few one-off devices were running Linux, but it didn’t do much to help the community or drive Linux development. It wasn’t until 2005, when Google purchased a young start-up called Android, that Linux would at long last get the chance to compete in a fair fight.

Android is, interestingly enough, the closest thing there is to a true Linux operating system; as it only uses the Linux kernel and not the GNU userland.  What would usually be done with the GNU libraries and tools is done with Android specific software released under the Apache license. So while the traditional Linux distributions (Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, etc, etc) are actually considered a mix of the GNU operating system and the Linux kernel, Android can fairly be called “just Linux”. Beyond the kernel, there is a custom user interface and a Java virtual machine which makes it possible to write one Android application that runs on any of the architectures Android itself runs on. So Android netbooks with Intel or AMD processors can run the same applications as smartphones powered by ARM chips.

As of January 2012, analysts put Android’s total activated device count at roughly 230 million, with an additional 500,000 to 700,000 devices activated daily. That number doesn’t even take into account devices which can’t (officially) access the Android Market, like the Barnes and Noble Nook or the Kindle Fire, so the actual number of Android devices in the hands of users is even higher than that. This makes Android far and away the single most popular Linux operating system in existence, completely eclipsing the accepted market leader in desktop Linux, Ubuntu (recent estimates put total Ubuntu users at around 20 million).

Linux for Everyone

As if the commanding success of Android wasn’t enough, Google is currently working on bringing yet another Linux operating system to the masses through the Chrome OS project. Unlike Android, Chrome OS is better classified as a traditional GNU/Linux distribution, as it includes (more or less) all of the software and libraries you would expect from a standard Linux system, but with a simplified window manager and just one locally installed application: the Chrome browser.

The goal of Chrome OS isn’t to replace the traditional desktop operating system, but rather change how we think of it. Instead of saving files or installing programs on the local computer, Chrome OS devices (known commonly as “Chromebooks”) access everything through the Internet, primarily through Google’s suite of services (GMail, Google Docs, Google Music, Google Docs, etc). Chrome OS is designed to be the easiest to use computing experience available; anyone who can use a mouse can use a Chrome OS computer and remain completely safe via trusted open source software packages, an infallible automatic update system, and novel security measures like only running software cryptographically signed by Google.

While the success of the Chrome OS initiative is still far from certain, Google has very high hopes. Some retailers have predicted that as many as 1 in 10 computers sold in 2012 will be powered by Chrome OS, further extending the reach of Linux and open source software in the household. You could even say that, while Linux was once forced out of the netbook market, it will now be directly competing with it via a device that is uniquely Linux, the Chromebook.

Year of Linux Everywhere

With the computing habits of consumers changing, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t see much point in celebrating or mocking a 1% market for desktop Linux.  Let Mac OS and Windows fight for the scraps of a dieing market, while Linux builds the next generation of secure and reliable devices that will be to the 21st century what the personal computer was to the 20th.

I don’t believe that 2012 will be the “Year of Desktop Linux”, and I don’t think that oft-lauded day is ever coming: Linux has effectively skipped over the desktop, and that’s something the community should be very excited about. If anything, I think 2012 will further the trend of Linux…everywhere.

About Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: .
  • drhowarddrfine

    The thing is, Linux is based on a professional operating system while Windows was designed for amateurs. Most amateurs will never try or use Linux until it can approach the useability of of an Apple Mac which is a certified Unix operating system. So Apple proves that Unix can be made user friendly enough that even amateurs can use them though Mac has a very large share of professional users, too.

    • SA-1TPB

      You ever use Ubuntu?
      Go out, get a cheap thumb drive, and boot it.

      Then tell me that amateurs can’t use Linux. And it’s not much different on mobile devices, too.

  • Interested

    Does the world need a tiny, free kernel that can cut the cost of kernel development for many smaller and larger hardware manufactures looking for an OS? Yes. Are comparisons to Apple OS and Windows OS fair or even worth considering? No.

  • Alleagrastudena

    “… just managed to capture it’s first percent of …. ”

    Basic grammar!
    To remind you: – “it’s” is only ever, ever, an abbreviation for ” it is “.
    That’s the test: if you can’t say “to capture it is first percent of ” then you know it’s incorrect.
    Now you’ll never make that mistake again.

  • Florian Bösch

    Well, the desktop will always matter. Quick sanity check. On what device do you write all your articles? Desktop. What device do you use most to keep up with the internet and get most things done? Desktop. What device do you use to write emails? Desktop. What device do you use for photoshop/gimp? It pretty much goes on and on.

    Oh of course the mythical death of the desktop gets proclaimed about every 5 minutes or so by some or another “analyst”. The thing is though, a desktop (regardless of how it works) isn’t a specific machine, or operating system, it’s a concept. That concept involves a few key ingredients:
    – A table
    – A chair
    – A big display
    – A keyboard
    – A mouse

    Now I’ve got no doubt that some pundit will proclaim the death of the desktop (yet again) when he writes that particular drivel on his iPad7, sitting on his desk, with an 24′ screen, and a keyboard and mouse attached. But I’m sure you can appreciate the irony.

    • Tom Nardi

      As a matter of fact, I have not owned a desktop computer since around 2010. Do I miss having the 22 inch monitor and full size keyboard? Sure, sometimes. But not enough to justify the cost of building a new desktop machine, or even the electricity it would cost to run it on a day to day basis.

      I do have a laptop I use when I’m doing the occasional bit of development, though.

      More to the point, as mentioned in the article, there will still always be a niche for desktop machines given their power and flexibility. The issue at hand is what the average consumer is doing, not developers and content creators.

      • Florian Bösch

        Defining a comfortable work environment as a niche only developers and content creators require is just that little bit shortsighted. There’s several things wrong with that.
        1) A stupendous increase in time of white and blue collar workers is spent on operating information technology. This often means something that falls outside the remit you grant of “developers” and “content creators”.
        2) Touchfondle devices are just not the volume of work tools that desktops are. Even if you can get some work done, you’re not gonna sit 8 hours on your couch touchfondling, if for no other reason then a sore back and arms that want to fall off (not to say anything about a surface for a mouse, other work materials, office culture etc.)
        3) Even though touchfondle devices (and consoles) constantly clamour for customer attention for the newest way to play games, x86 based computers with one or another type of GPU simply don’t have the good grace to go the way of the dinosaurs. There’s a reason for that of course. The reason is that about 2 years into the lifetime of a console, PCs overtake it in performance. And touchfondle devices are about 15 years away from PC performance. And while angry birds and such are all fine games, every once in a while people do want to play battlefield3, crysis2 or Skyrim, and they want to play it with all the suggar they can afford. There’s even some stirrings in the bowels of the game industry (the valve console) which has the potential to put classical PCs at the center of console gaming again. That said, even the PS4 is departing from specialized hardware and is gonna be a shiny black wrapping over a fixed specification PC. Much as you might think touchfondle devices will take over the world of entertainment, PCs are there to stay.
        4) you seem to be under the impression that desktops will remain something inherently expensive. That is a very foolish assumption. The price of PC components/hardware has gone down considerably. We’re on the brink of an entirely new display technology called OLED. Once this is mass produced, large scale high quality displays will be unbelievably cheap (and lightweight). Your enamored 24′ super full-hd true color display won’t take up any space, you can roll it together if you don’t need it, and it’ll cost about 50$. There has been the release of the rasberry PI, which costs 25$. Together with miniaturization the energy required to run these devices will drop drastically, and you can probably run your rasberry PI and the next generation of OLED displays with a 9-V battery. When all is said and done, in a couple years you will be able to aquire a complete desktop worthy set of items that constitute a workplace with everything you need below 100$.

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  • Paulgrinberg

    There some truth in your argument but there is a flaw in the logic. For instance Mac OS X is a Unix certified system but it is not really Unix by design as it uses the Mach kernel and BSD kernels as servers running on top of a Unix like microkernel instead of an actual Unix monolithic kernel like Linux does. Mac OS X is Unix-like but not really Unix at all.

    Android is Linux-like because it has the Kernel, but this is a modified Kernel that is as different from standard Linux such that you could not run standard Linux applications on it. In fact the only way to run standard Linux apps is to use Ubuntu for Android that uses a virtual machine. To say Android is Linux is not true, it is heavily modified to be almost a separate class of systems.

    Windows as a desktop system still dominates most areas. Whatever company dominates the Desktop has a major advantage in dominating other areas. Microsoft through its own stupidity has neglected mobile and Apple has taken the lead in that. Mac OS X is breaking through to the mainstream, so it is really the “Year of Apple” as they begin their domination of the computing industry on the consumer side. Linux still has a far way to go on the Desktop. So I realistically see Apple being the dominant Desktop ecosystem in the next 5-10 years and Microsoft Windows dropping to 45% of the market.

    However, the numbers for Desktop Linux are skewed because they don’t include the developing world – that is India, Brazil and China and Latin America – where Linux is enjoying a boom time. Canonical is now selling desktop systems in China and the State Government is trying to switch everyone to Red Flag Linux their own state created distro and so far this is working very well to convert people who would normally pirate Windows to go legal with Linux. India is also a major area where for example the entire state of Tamil Naidu has converted to Linux and Linux enjoys numbers closer to around 30% of the market.

    Linux has a major future in the developing world (China, India, Brazil, etc…) much in the same way Apple does in the US, Japan and EU. Two desktops will decimate Microsoft from both sides over the next 5 years but in different market areas…

  • Paulgrins

    The problem with this argument is that the 90% Windows market share ONLY includes the CONSUMER market. The consumer market is a loser market in the long term because it is so fickle and is fad based. Microsoft is desperate to dominate in a market of twits who know nothing about technology watching Hollywood movies and chatting with their friends! Let Apple and Microssft have the lemmings because Linux is about serious computing! Segmenting different OS markets reveals that Microsoft is actually largely irrelevant to the larger world of computing.

    Supercomputers: Linux wins.
    Infrastructure/Industrial: Linux and Unix tie.
    Banking/Finance: Linux wins.
    Aerospace/Engineering: Linux wins.
    Servers/Data: Linux wins.
    Enterprise: Linux winning, Windows losing big.
    Small/Medium Business: Windows wins.
    Power User: Linux, Apple, Windows tied.
    Media/Graphics: Apple wins it all.
    Consumer Desktop: Windows wins, Apple gaining.
    Tablet: Apple , Linux (Android) both tied.
    Mobile: Apple, Linux (Android) tied.
    Embedded: Linux wins again…

    As you can see the marketshare numbers Linux has a near global hegemony in the majority of computing devices world-wide. Microsoft could only fantasize and dream about having that kind of computing dominance. Those who think that Linux Desktop is dead should go to Dell, HP and Lenovo and ask to buy a high end enterprise workstation, they all come pre-installed with Red Hat Linux or Suse Enterprise Linux. 90% of the enterprise workstation business is dominated by Red Hat and Novell but Ubuntu is becoming a serious alternative. In the world of high end computing Microsoft is a big big big loser. Bill Gates dream of being the “serious business oriented operating system guy” were dashed by Linux and Red Hat, Novell and IBM Linux are the monsters that haunt his nightmares…