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Attempts to Count Linux Users Remain Pointless 304

An anonymous reader writes "A great deal of attention is paid to numbers, but rarely does one actually ask what these numbers mean. One problem that many people have been trying to tackle is gauging the extent of use of Free software, including Linux. Questionnaires are not a solution here and neither are statistics, which are usually derived from the wrong data. The following article looks at the various challenges at hand and concludes that the growth rate of Linux is likely to remain an enigma."
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Attempts to Count Linux Users Remain Pointless

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  • by yourmomisfasterthana ( 1097719 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:09AM (#19800759) Journal
    "Do not attempt to count the number of Linux users, thats impossible, instead, try to realize the truth... there is no Linux" :-P
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by vga_init ( 589198 )
      That's true, actually. "Linux" is nothing more than hacker code speak for the bastardization of a quality Microsoft operating system called Xenix, the latest version of Unix (even Apple stole code from Microsoft to make OS X). It was stolen long ago by European communists who do little more than copy capitalist inventions and try to subvert the market by destroying private ownership.

      Anyone who uses this socialist junk is anti-American, and you're a fool if you think Linux is a real, quality software proje
  • hmm. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by apodyopsis ( 1048476 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:12AM (#19800827)
    well I skimmed TFA and conclude we can now expect in these comments:-

    (1) a lot of foaming at the mouth rants and statistics from Linux evangelists
    (2) some distie bashing thrown in for good measure
    (3) the inevitable vista comments and hints about massive marketing campaigns
    (4) maybe some mention of PCs shipped with Linux pre-installed
    (5) if we are really lucky maybe the odd referenced fact

    .. and nobody being better informed at then end of it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by neonmonk ( 467567 )
      Er, haven't you heard..

      2008 will be the year of the Linux Desktop, so it's all irrelevant now!
    • You're probably right, but I'm not sure if you're saying that this will happen because of the quality of the article, or the quality of slashdot posters. In either case, the summary/article itself doesn't really help, given the nonsensical statements like

      Questionnaires are not a solution here and neither are statistics, which are usually derived from the wrong data.

      Ah yes, damned statistics; always getting in the way when I'm trying to gather reliable... statistics. And don't get me started on asking questions, that's clearly the worst way to get answers to things I want to know.

      Really now, what are they trying to

    • Re:hmm. (Score:5, Funny)

      by eln ( 21727 ) * on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:28AM (#19801045)
      You're way off base. All of the people in my department at work run Linux, so clearly Linux is already dominating the desktop. The fact that my department is made up of entirely Linux sysadmins should not take anything away from this single statistically relevant sample. Of course, we all run Red Hat because Gentoo is for masochists and Ubuntu has a stupid name. Sure, Microsoft's brainwashing^Wmarketing may lead you to believe that Vista is all the rage, but everyone knows it's a memory hog that barely runs on most supercomputers. Especially now with Linux being pre-installed on so many desktops, Microsoft is bound to go bankrupt any day now.

      Also, did you know that the longest recorded frog jump was 33 feet 5.5 inches []? Amazing!
    • (6) in soviet russia, ... (7) profit (8) someone will smugly summarize the whole thing in one post
    • by Jerry ( 6400 )
      And your NOT ranting and bashing?

      You have one thing right: no one is better informed after reading your rant.
    • I've been skimming these TFAs on Slashdot for close to 10 years now and conclude that we can expect a meta-comment that will try to categorize all subsequent comments.

      Ha! I out-meta-commented you, so neener-neener! :-)
      • I'm quite happy for no one to know exactly how many linux users are out there, because having the opposition (MS) not know exactly where you are or how many keeps them guessing. Meanwhile, the cold, hard facts continue to drive linux adoption in the background (it's free, secure, fast, light, stable, extensible, open, etc). Most geeks understand those advantages, and influence the tech policies where they work. Which in turn influences the pointy hairs who don't really understand tech but take what the g
    • Re:hmm. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ( 760528 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @01:24PM (#19802713)
      Speaking as a person who has to go out on site as a consultant and recommend the best product for the job (regardless of personal bias) - and yes, that includes the places that are MS-only where i find myself saying "yeah, sql server 2005 is briliant", or "yeah, you should really get ms systems server op's center". I do believe things are changing somewhat. It started about 6-9months ago, i'd go out to a traditional windows company and they'd be running a samba server with apache where there used to be IIS and win 2k3.

      Then a friends company (not a small one mind you) went off to do a linux-on-the-desktop study as alot of their windows agreements were about to become eol so to speak. At first I thought this was a bargaining tool to get cheaper software, but I was surprised to find that not only was it about replacing the desktop but also the server side functionality. It turned out they'd started looking at linux desktops because they'd managed to gain some linux servers to replace most costly machines (some windows, but alot were aix or solaris) - interestingly, alot of the now-linux server hardware are sun x86'ers running centos. As a result they took on some linux types to administer them, and it grew - they replaced a few non-essential file servers. changed a few mail gateways to linux. Moved proxies to squid. As their CTO put it "i was suddenly surrounded by linux and didn't realise it until i looked at the balance sheets, all we are paying for is hardware and alot of the things we are using linux for are internally grown and maintained. I started to think we weren't paying for licenses were we should be". One of the things that did take him by supprise is that half his IT department by this time had switched to a linux desktop and used mail thru imap or some such (some were using windows still thru vmware player or from a terminal server running outlook). Apparently if you pxe boot off alot of the networks, you'll get a pxelinux menu that allows you to boot various things like dsl or install a customized ubuntu (though i didn't see that myself). I know they're also running some systems with RHEL too because they "feel good" to know they have support.

      To sum it up, i was quite shocked. 12 months ago I was feeling "unix was coming to an end" and feeling quite disappointed by that, but I feel quite elated by what i've seen lately - Especially so in Australia where linux has had a really tough time of it.

      Having said all that, i think the author wasn't just referring to linux users but also the users of FOSS replacements for commercial applications (like open office, gimp, etc). I can't say i've seen a tonne of that myself, but its not uncommon to see things like gaim, firefox, jedit, eclipse - smaller things really.

      It will be very interesting to see what the next 12months brings us.
  • by CaptainPatent ( 1087643 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:15AM (#19800859) Journal
    A "Linux user" could be anything from a hardcore Gentoo-compiling mad man of a Linux user to somebody who uses a phone or other device which has embedded Linux. I for one dual boot so for purposes of this attempt at a survey am I half of a linux user? I use several devices with embedded Linux distros so am I 80% Linux user? Does the device need to be capable of browsing to a webpage or (as is cliche on /.) does it just have to run Linux?
    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )
      Well lets start counting every one of the Linksys routers that that ran Linux and all the Tivos ever sold.
      Then throw all the NSLU users and goodness knows what other little device that used Linux.
      Now for fun throw in everybody that uses Google :)
      Everybody uses Linux.
    • The other day I was in an Edeka [], and happened to see the Tux/Linux Inside logo on their cash register display. It made my day...
    • by xtracto ( 837672 )
      A "Linux user" could be anything from a hardcore Gentoo-compiling mad man of a Linux user to somebody who uses a phone or other device which has embedded Linux..

      That is very true. I think the first step in measuring something is defining /exactly/ what do you want to measure. I could argue that /everyone/ is using Linux each time they go to or or one of the thousands of servers running Linux. But I guess when referring to "running linux" articles usually refer to desktop compute
    • by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @12:46PM (#19802143) Journal
      A "Linux user" could be anything from a hardcore Gentoo-compiling mad man of a Linux user to somebody who uses a phone or other device which has embedded Linux.

      A point that is not actually made in TFA. I was talking with my father-in-law the other day, and we were discussing my software-engineering job, and that I use Linux preferentially simply because it's so much more reliable and "commercial grade" despite it's being free.

      He announces to me that "Well, that's all fine and dandy, but I'm never going to bother learning that...". So I pointed to the Dish DVR under his TV and the Linksys router next to his Windows PC, and indicated that he was already using it more than he was using Windows!

      This is a point that TFA didn't cover at all. The desktop is losing its dominant position.
  • Firefox (Score:5, Funny)

    by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) * on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:16AM (#19800865) Journal
    I'm going to offer the same solution I did for counting Firefox users:

    1) Require a national ID number to download any Linux distro, and validation of ownership of this number through an in-person meeting with the local authorities.

    2) Have the software "phone home" that it's actually being used, when it's used.

    3) Close the source so that 2) can be facilitated.

    4) Made the ID numbers and contact information in 1) publicly available so anyone can audit the official count of users.

    There, done, you've got everyone counted. Wasn't that easy?
    • Re:Firefox (Score:4, Funny)

      by Timesprout ( 579035 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:19AM (#19800913)
      How about we just ask for a show of hands.
      • How about we just ask for a show of hands.

        (Editor's note: for those of you viewing pr0n at home, just a show of hand will suffice)

        Or how about:

        (Drill Sgt.): Alright maggots, COUNT OFF:

        (thousands/millions of linux users): ONE!

        Dismissed! Thanks for coming.

        (Ed note: for those of you still viewing pr0n at home, don't take that literally. Please.)
    • 1) Require a national ID number to download any Linux distro, and validation of ownership of this number through an in-person meeting with the local authorities.

      2) Have the software "phone home" that it's actually being used, when it's used.

      Yes! Every day Linux Genuine Advantage [] helps customers all over the world who are victims of software piracy get genuine. If you got your Linux for free, you should upgrade today to get the following exciting new features:
      • Closed source, for extra Security Through Obscur
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Innovative new Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to help us manage your digital privileges,
        There. Fixed that for you.
    • by griffjon ( 14945 )
      Seriously, though, the article seemed to focus on all the possible ways Linux might be being undercounted - proxies/NATs, installation of multiple systems from one downloaded CD, bittorrent distribution, spoofed HTTP headers, being counted under "unknown"

      I call bullshit. Most of these also apply to Windows, the main advantage in counting windows being "Genuine Advantage" Still, my workplace has a MS site license and is NATted; are we fully and accurately counted? What about global piracy rates of Windows
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Aladrin ( 926209 )

        installation of multiple systems from one downloaded CD, bittorrent distribution,

        Most of these also apply to Windows,


        As a side note, I've always felt the precision vs accuracy thing was a bit odd. What good is one without the other? Being precise and innacurate is pointless because you -know- the number is probably wrong, but it's always the same wrong. Being imprecise and accurate is pointless because your numbers are right, but you don't know what they mean. (They're -right-, but right for what?

        • by griffjon ( 14945 )
          Are we just counting legal windows copies? That makes it a lot easier, but also a much smaller number...
  • Not possible (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jshriverWVU ( 810740 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:17AM (#19800889)
    As long as you can get linux from compile and make your own distro, download from a myriad of distros, multiple installs both in hardware and in vm's, and people single people using multiple versions it's really not possible to get a valid number on how many computers are actually running linux.

    Plus are you talking about just Server/desktop? If you count the millions of embedded devices that run gnu/linux I'm sure it would be considered the worlds most popular OS. It's all in how you want to swing the numbers.

    • by shird ( 566377 )
      Well you could take a look at the number of downloads of the most popular distros (eg ubuntu) from their primary download sites, and thn extrapolate from there. Its true that only a fraction of people running Linux will download that particular distro from that particular source; but as long as that fraction is relatively constant, you can still measure growth.

      eg, you can extrapolate that Linux adoption has doubled if ubuntu downloads have doubled, even if you don't have the full figures.
  • Well, duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:19AM (#19800921)

    It might not be entirely pointless to try, but I'm reasonably convinced of two things: I don't care (and don't need to) about the exact numbers, and it's growing.

    I don't care largely because the software meets *my* needs. That's the most important thing to me. An assurance that it will continue to do so is also nice, and there are clearly a lot of people developing for it. I'm not worried on that front. People who have a big investment in *other people* using Linux (especially when said other people aren't developers) confuse me. (Well, except when they're trying to sell Linux software / services.)

    It's growing. I can't tell you how much, but I can offer the anecdotal evidence that the responses I get to "I run Linux" have changed over the past few years. It's not always "What's that?" anymore. It's not uncommon to get questions about it in response -- people want to know how well it works, whether it runs the same software as Windows, etc. I just answer their questions and am polite and friendly about it.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I just answer their questions and am polite and friendly about it.

      What kind of evangelism is that? You should browbeat them into submission and threaten them with eternal damnation in the pits of Redmond if they don't convert!
  • Perhaps some kind of central server to keep track of who's using Linux? It could be called Linux Legitimate Benefit...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by blindd0t ( 855876 )
      No no, you wouldn't want Linux to violate yet another Microsoft patent! (being facetious, of course)
  • couldn't you just (Score:5, Interesting)

    by oliverthered ( 187439 ) <(oliverthered) (at) (> on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:23AM (#19800985) Journal
    Take a sample of 10000 people / companies.
    Ask them if they use Linux of not
    Extrapolate the results.

    Seems to work when there counting all kinds of other things that don't have a direct method of counting them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) *
      I want to know if it's even possible to do a good, statistically-valid survey anymore.

      How would you do it? Call people up? Sorry, that excludes all the people who use only VoIP or cell phones, because you can't call them. So, you know that your survey is already limited to mouth-breathers who still use POTS and talk to survey people.

      Am I going out on a limb to say that that class of people has markedly different charasteristics than those outside of it, especially on Linux?
      • When waiting in line at a movie theater, ask people.

        When in line at the supermarket, ask people.

        When waiting to pick up your kids at daycare, strike up a conversation about computers with the other parents, and find out what they use. Or ask other parents at the next PTA meeting.

        Ask others at your church or coven.

        At the next meeting of your model rocketry club or RC airplane club, find out what people are using.

        Next time you are at BestBuy buying blank CDs, or a thumb drive, or anything else in th

    • Yes, you could do that. But it would give you results consistent with all the other counting methods, and so it must be flawed too. :-)

      The gist of the article seems to be that no counting method is perfect and therefore gives you no useful information. In fact, an imperfect counting method can still give some information, and the information from independent methods can be combined. This is done all the time in science, for instance. Does the original author think that marine biologists get counts of fish

    • How many people know they're using Linux on their phones? Do they know Linux runs a lot of DVRs? Do those numbers even count? The problem with counting Linux users is everyone is technically a Linux user. Do we then just count Linux desktop users? Is that number significant in any way?

      Just a few honest questions here. You won't find much in the way of linux desktop OS users although their numbers are indeed growing. At what rate I have no idea as I believe that is hard to measure given.

    • by Surt ( 22457 )
      Actually, the long term evidence on sampling is pretty bad. Sampling gets stuff pretty wrong, usually due to difficult to foresee flaws in the sampling methodology.
    • Any major website, such as Google, Amazon, Ebay, etc... should have this information at hand... I would say that the percentage of google users that use linux is a good indication of the percentage of computer users that use Linux.
  • by starseeker ( 141897 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @11:28AM (#19801035) Homepage
    That's a good way to start a Monday :-).

    Actually, it's not so much that they are pointless - just that they are useless. There is a point to knowing how many Linux boxes are out there (demographic studies, confidence in support longevity as a function of install base, etc.) But most known techniques for counting remain useless.

    To be honest, this might be just as well. Any technology that COULD count successfully all the Linux boxes out there would be a bit scary - many people probably don't WANT anyone to be able to know what they are running. (OK so nmap can probably figure out anyway...)

    Large scale counts like this are a difficult proposition - the only things that approaches being successful in this respect are probably automobile registration systems, census systems, and the tax system - in other words, massive systems with compulsary reporting for every existing component member.

    Now, of more interest might be to work with the BSA for a while (or someone else who has the authority to open random IT doors at random) and do an anonymous study of deployment percentages at random under guise of a random license check or soemthing. Probably (hopefully!) not legal but it would be a way to get statistically meaningful results if the sample was chosen well.
    • by kebes ( 861706 )

      Any technology that COULD count successfully all the Linux boxes out there would be a bit scary - many people probably don't WANT anyone to be able to know what they are running.

      Well there is a very old and very well-tested "technology" that could determine the number of Linux users, and all without invading privacy, or installing software on people's computers. It's called: "statistical surveys."

      Yes, surveys are imperfect. They have error bars. However if the sample size is big enough, they give a rea

    • Actually, it's not so much that they are pointless - just that they are useless.

      I'd prefer that an operating system, or the software we run from day to day be fairly generic and taken for granted, but we live in a world where the average person believes software, if not downloaded on those rare occasions from some obscure website, is available in shrink-wrapped packages only. And then from a vendor who, we assume, will support that software (the corrollary being that everyone who writes software makes a li
  • a server side log of unique ip's that Download [ some standard file ] from the major repositories/minor mirrors, with a forward to a central DB (IP's stripped, of course) would be a relatively simple solution.
  • Tally every PC sold where the customer asks "The wireless card on this notebook doesn't have a broadcom chipset, right?" or "Do you have this model with an NVidia card? ATI is dead to me"
  • 20,000 Linux users per thrown chair (potty mouth == 5,000/word)
  • No real way to count them, either.

    For instance, I have two Windows 98 boxes in my basement I got from an auction. Am I a Windows user? Do I count twice? Or not at all since they'll never be powered up (got them for cheap long ago, never used them, will probably donate them to Goodwill).

    And how about all those pirate boxes in Asia? Do they count or not?

    If I had to guess, I'd say that WGA was (at least partially) an attempt to count windows users. And we all know how that worked out.

  • Why not just count yum/apt repository/mirror hits by unique IP?

    Okay so that underestimates those in big organisations who run their own mirror, and those running old distros that don't check for updates, but it would be a damn sight more accurate than most of the other methods.

    The big distros (Red Hat, Ubuntu etc) could even sponsor an independent body to oversee the fair collection of the data from the repos and mirrors.
  • I'd be curious to see how many Java developers use desktop Linux. After all, they're not tied to any particular platform. I've got this growing suspicion that people who don't have to use the latest Windows (XP or Vista) are either using Win2K or Linux.
  • For the Bogglers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BobMcD ( 601576 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @12:03PM (#19801525)

    For those boggling over WHY this matters, try and keep in mind that Microsoft, Apple, et al provide these figures regularly. Whether or not they're valid is a source of debate, but some kind of numbers are out there. This is how we get to say things like 'Windows is 90% of the market', etc.

    Perhaps we need a 'BeCounted' daemon that merely tracks the stats of those that would like to be counted? It would still be a fraction, but if that number were out there we'd at least have some kind of data point to discuss. Perhaps FSF or GNU or some other party would host the servers that collect the data? You could even make the thing multi-platform, reporting on specific apps, and providing other useful data and pitch it to Google and company. Not that they're not already tracking this in their own apps, but this would be OSS. You could have all sorts of opt-in/opt-out toggles for it and it would be transparent as to what it tracked. You could also have it gather from different places and homogenize the data after it was submitted. The possibilities abound.

    Maybe there already is such a creature? If we supporters of Free-with-a-capital-F want to be relevant moving forward, a detailed head-count could certainly be a step in the right direction.
    • Sounds like the Debian Popularity Contest [], except for all distros instead of just Debian (and Debian based?). That is for package popularity, but it appears to count number of installs reporting info as well.
      • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

        Bingo! If this were moved a bit more towards the generic, and more-widely adopted, we'd be in business.
    • there has been such an effort for many years, but it hasn't gained ground. heck, I barely remember to keep my entries up to date. []
      • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

        That could use a little charisma, but yeah, it's pretty close.

        Does anyone know why it hasn't caught on? Seems like something like this would make a nice addition to the 'base' installs of the major distro's.
  • Crazy? Maybe. But here are the reasons.

    1. Big companies will crush most of the smaller distros. If anyone is old enough to remember before the ipod was launched, they would tell you there were many more mp3-audio devices. Some of them were interesting. The entry of Apple crushed most of them for a product that wasn't substantially better and more expensive.

    2. Big companies use research to justify market entry. They will create a Linux distro mono-culture. Not only will they create a mono-culture, the

  • I have 2 windows machines and no Linux machine. But I *use* Linux; my web sites are hosted on linux because the virtualization is better and it's cheaper. My svn server is linux and so is the server that runs wikis, PM systems and the other things I need to have. Why, I couldn't get by without linux! Yet I don't actually have a linux machine and I thus don't add to the ranks of linux users, whereas I *do* add to the ranks of Windows users.

    I guess what I'm saying is, it's very hard to evaluate the import
  • Also, programming is useless, because nobody can write a bug free program.

    And weather predication is useless, because we can never be 100% sure of the results.

    And Economics is useless, because there are so many parameters to measure constantly, and they are always changing that we can't actually be sure of anything at anytime.

  • by wild_berry ( 448019 ) * on Monday July 09, 2007 @12:21PM (#19801793) Journal
    Take a leaf from the MPAA and RIAA and extrapolate the losses from Microsoft's profits.
  • As a game developer creating a cross-platform game client that can run on Windows, Mac and Linux, I am definitely interested in the number of "Linux Users" as I evaluate cost of development targeting and supporting Linux and the expected number of players I will get from that effort. What I am personally not as interested in are the number of "Uses of Linux"; however, if I were a tools, library or utility developer I would probably definitely be interested in the total amount of "Uses of Linux" when consid
  • You know what people, almost all user-active-machines are often also used for some surfing, so what's the most visited web-resource ? I think it's really the google homesearch page... Maybe they can help to have a more-reliable estimate...
  • It seems to me that Linux is growing at a pretty good clip, and any numbers you can come up with (downloads, random surveys, browser usage, etc) would show that. This whole article just reads like they're whining because they can't get the numbers they want. What exactly are they looking for?
  • Our Toshiba Printer in the office runs Linux. Do I count everyone who prints to it as a Linux User or do we all make up one user?
  • "Are you aaaaangry, Butt-Head?"
    "Yeah. I'm angry at numbers!"
  • Wouldn't the web log of a high traffic web site (ie. google) gives us these numbers? Or at least enable the development of thumb rules that would allow us to infer approximations?
  • nmap (Score:3, Funny)

    by MadMidnightBomber ( 894759 ) on Monday July 09, 2007 @02:04PM (#19803307)
    duh! nmap -sO
  • I love Linux, I think it's great. I run Slackware and Ubuntu; and I'm going to purchase that cool new Linux-phone real soon. What I *hate* is the way that some Linux users flat-out lie to promote Linux as something it's not. Attempts to count Linux desktop users is pointless and the primary reason for that is....nobody uses Linux on the desktop. You don't need a fancy survey to tell you that. Walk into Best-Buy and find a wireless card that lists 'Linux' on the side of the box where it says 'Supported

If a 6600 used paper tape instead of core memory, it would use up tape at about 30 miles/second. -- Grishman, Assembly Language Programming