Can Linux Adoption Ever be Accurately Gauged?

Endless attempts have been made to count Linux users, yet the operating system’s true growth remains an enigma.
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Determining usage and growth of Free software has always been a challenge. For over a decade, arguments have been held – sometimes flamewars – whose central point was the usage level of software that is freely distributed. While market share can be estimated based on sales numbers, Free software usually replaces existing software that is proprietary, i.e. its ownership lies with a vendor and it is usually treated as an integral part of another product.

When discussing Free software, the term "installed base" seems rather popular. It is installation, not embedment or preinstallation, that tailors a product to the owner's personal needs. Unfortunately, installed base, as opposed to market share, proves to be a tricky thing to gauge.

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At the center of this debate, one typically finds the GNU/Linux operating system. Many perceive Linux the greatest contender with the capability to bring Free software to the mainstream. Linux is commonly obtained through exchange of CDs, which can then be modified, pass from user to user, and be used to deploy the same software on multiple computers. The content of these CDs is usually (albeit not always) downloaded from the Internet. Lesser-known Linux distributions are sometimes obtained through peers or via BitTorrent, which cannot be properly tracked. These channels of communication are decentralized by nature.

Endless attempts have been made to count Linux users. User base vanity harbors confidence and leads to better support from the industry. Attempts to quantify growth have included Web sites whose sole purpose is to have Linux users register and provide details about their computers. Even the most prominent among these Web sites met very limited success. They were not able to keep up with change, let alone attract and grab the attention of all Linux users. Most Linux users were simply apathetic toward this cause.

In more recent years, the ubiquity of interconnected devices and computers has played an important role in statistics. Computing units that offer Web access have generated large piles of data. Statistical analysis of this data was thought to be another opportunity to study presence and geography of Linux users around the planet. It has, however, been a very deficient analysis. For a variety of reasons, too many assumptions were made, which led to flawed conclusions. To this date, no proper and valid analysis has been carried out.

Looking more closely at some difficulties in interpreting Web statistics, there are numerous factors to consider. There are obvious problems. The sample of selectively chosen Web sites often contains particular audiences which, on average, do not represent the entire population. Additionally, due to diversity in the identity of Linux, as it comes in as just one among a large number of distributions, identification strings are hard to understand. As such, many Linux users are simply being treated as though they use an “unknown” operating system. This “unknown” component is statistically significant, yet it tends to be ignored and discarded.


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