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Debunking the Linux 1% market share myth?

This article by Caitlin Martin on the Oreilly website is a little old, September 2010, but not too ancient. But I was just chatting with Dell they officially abandoned sales of Linux systems, ALL of them, in the middle of 2010. What a strange contrast in information. Anyhow, though not definitive, she does makes some excellent points that Linux market share is more likely 8-10% at least, and backs it up with some reasonaable explanations and reports. A worthy read for Linux critics and supporters...

 It seems as though almost every day someone in the tech press or someone commenting in a technical forum will claim that Linux adoption on the desktop (including laptops) is insignificant. The number that is thrown around is 1%. These claims are even repeated by some who advocate for Linux adoption. Both the idea that Linux market share on the desktop is insignificant and the 1% figure are simply false and have been for many years.

Linux market share is not tiny. Linux and UNIX have held a majority share of the server room for over a decade. Linux is very competitive in embedded devices. It is also making great strides on the consumer and business desktop, which includes laptops, notebooks and netbooks.

Let's start with netbooks, the area where Linux has made the biggest inroads. According to ABI Research Linux regained 32% of the netbook market in 2009 despite being next to impossible to find in brick and mortar stores. That number did not include systems sold in dual boot configurations with both Windows and Linux. On such systems Windows is still considered to be the default operating system.

Dell also reported that nearly a third of their netbook sales in 2009 were systems preloaded with Ubuntu. Recent reports that there was no longer demand for Linux on netbooks and that Dell was dropping Linux proved to be false. Indeed, as of today Dell is offering laptop and desktop models preloaded with Ubuntu in addition to the Inspiron Mini 10n netbook.

What do the netbook numbers mean in terms of overall desktop and laptop sales? According to Forrester Research netbooks were 18% of total desktop/laptop sales last year. If we do the math we find that due to netbooks alone Linux captured nearly 6% of the desktop market in 2009. In order to reach a total number we need to add larger laptops and desktops both from companies like Dell, HP (their business line) as well as smaller boutique vendors.

Additional confirmation of the growth in Linux desktop market share last year came from an unlikely source: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Using a slide to visualize OS market share Ballmer had Linux desktop market share as a slightly larger slice of the pie than MacOS. Nobody considers Apple insignificant on the desktop and neither is Linux. Here is, in part, what Mr. Ballmer had to say about Linux on the desktop and the competition for Windows:

Linux, you could see on the slide, and Apple has certainly increased its share somewhat.


I think depending on how you look at it, Apple has probably increased its market share over the last year or so by a point or more. And a point of market share on a number that's about 300 million is interesting. It's an interesting amount of market share, while not necessarily being as dramatic as people would think, but we're very focused in on both Apple as a competitor, and Linux as a competitor."

Does anyone believe that Microsoft would see Linux as a serious competitor is Linux had captured just 1% of the market? That doesn't seem very likely, does it? All the figures I have quoted so far represent sales of systems preloaded with a given operating system: Windows, MacOS or Linux. They do not represent actual usage. If you go down to the local brick and mortar computer shop or big box retailer, buy a system with Windows, wipe the hard drive and install Linux that still counts as a Windows system, not a Linux system.

Where does the 1% number come from? There are two sources: very old data and web counters. The problem with using web counters to try and ascertain market share is that they generally only include websites that have paid to be counted. That pretty much guarantees that Windows will be overcounted. ars technica recently demonstrated how dramatic the error can be in an article on browser market share. Overall they found the Internet Explorer has just over 60% of the market, Firefox just under 23%, and Chrome a little under 8%. The percentages for ars technica's own website were entirely different with Firefox at just under 38%, Chrome at almost 22% and Internet Explorer a distant fourth at 16.63%. The reason for the discrepancy is fairly obvious: ars technica caters to highly technically literate readers who, in turn, are far more likely to be aware of security issues in IE and far more likely to use Linux or MacOS. Similarly, most Linux and technical websites do not pay to be counted by the web counter companies, which in turn skews numbers wildly in favor of Windows.

So what is Linux real market share on the desktop? The best estimate for present sales is around 8%, which puts Linux just a little behind or perhaps just about even with MacOS. 8% translates to 24 million systems per year sold with Linux preloaded. Windows represents at least 80% of the market and is a de facto monopoly still. However, there has been a steady erosion of that monopoly status.

If we talk about actual usage there really is no way to get an accurate measure. Educated guesswork probably puts Linux at close to 10%, just about even with MacOS. That is a far cry from 1% and is in no way insignificant.