OPINION

Man Bites Dog: Counting Linux In

If you sell products, measuring sales in terms of dollars during some reporting cycle — like a quarterly or annual period — makes perfect sense. It’s dollars you’re interested in, so dollars you measure. That’s not true, however, for the open-source community. If you give away the product, then usage is the only measure that counts.

Unfortunately, no one provides a widely accepted measure of open-source installations or usage. As a result, the measures that do exist consistently underestimate the actual install rate.

Consider, for example, the impact of IDC‘s recently released comparisons of its own server and desktop shipping statistics for 2002 and 2001. Here’s a quote from the news release:

Microsoft’s share of worldwide server operating environment (SOE) new license shipments grew from 50.5 percent in 2001 to 55.1 percent in 2002, while the company’s client operating environment (COE) new license shipments inched up from 93.2 percent to 93.8 percent of the worldwide COE market. By comparison, paid shipments of Linux SOEs captured 23.1 percent of the market, and Linux COE paid shipments accounted for 2.8 percent of the market total in 2002.

To an editor working in the mainstream media, this is a “dog bites man” story of little interest to the public. After all, there’s no news value to a story confirming what everyone already knows — that Microsoft is the invincible leader in this market.

Real Usage Numbers

Thus, the typical editor will minimize the exposure given the story even while being personally affected by it. After all, this confirmation of Microsoft’s market dominance reduces that editor’s interest in pursuing stories about Unix alternatives like BSD, Linux, Mac OS X or Solaris.

Imagine, in contrast, a comparable press release from a credible agency putting the combined Unix usage close to, or ahead of, Microsoft server usage. This would be widely seen as a “man bites dog” story and thus be likely to attract major mainstream press attention. Given the realities of the marketplace, widespread press attention like that would almost certainly lead to significant new interest in understanding and exploring the Unix alternatives to Microsoft.

In other words, if real usage numbers are in fact much larger than license sales, then the open-source community would have much to gain from getting and publicizing those numbers.

It is, of course, impossible to predict what the real numbers would look like, but we can think about several factors likely to affect the difference between license numbers and installation numbers. The first of these is quite obvious. Most people understand that Microsoft’s Enterprise 6 licensing and related support contracts motivate companies to buy more licenses than they actually install, while Unix licensing terms allow for multiple installs and thus motivate people to install more copies than they buy CDs and support for.

Annual Sales Anomalies

The next cause is much more subtle but probably more important. Few Microsoft installs last more than two years without significant change. The Microsoft sales cycle, for obvious reasons, aligns nicely with the annual reporting cycle. In contrast, Unix installs tend to last many years without significant change. People don’t fix things that work, and the open-source installation cycle therefore tends to be largely unrelated to the annual reporting cycle.

We don’t know how big an effect this is. It’s easy to find people running Solaris 2.7 or Red Hat 6.0, but there’s no real information on the numbers involved and little information, if any, on the ratio of upgrades versus new installs among those who order new software CDs.

Consider, for example, the rather special case of Apple’s desktop role. IDC’s numbers suggest a 2.9 percent annual market share, amounting to about 3.5 million new licenses, for desktop Mac OS X. If these were all upgrades, a typical five-year cycle would suggest a real Apple usage share on the order of 12 percent.

Conversely, interpreting the number as all new sales would suggest significant market growth but say nothing about the installed base. Thus, although IDC’s basic 2.9 percent number could reasonably lead the reader to conclude that the Mac is almost irrelevant as a desktop competitor, both external cases support the opposite conclusion — that Apple is a growing desktop competitor.

In reality, Apple’s usage is probably nearer the middle, indicating both a loyal customer base in the 8 percent range and significant new growth — but the point is simply that the annual sales percentage is of very limited value as a guide to actual usage where the upgrade cycle is largely unrelated to the reporting cycle.

Egregious ‘Combined Unix’ Numbers

The final cause is likely to be the least important now and among the most important in the future. In the IDC numbers, a license is a license, meaning that a Linux server used to run Samba for 80 users counts the same as a Windows 2003 Server license bought for an NT server that links 25 people. Most egregiously, IDC’s numbers put “combined Unix” — a term that excludes the three most popular Unix variants — at 11 percent of shipments, directly equating a $799 Windows 2000 Server license to a $15,000 Solaris license that can serve 5,000 users.

Overall, therefore, IDC sales numbers almost certainly understate the real role of Unix by a considerable margin while overstating the role of the latest Windows Server, thus distorting the public’s perception of the server OS marketplace. Since “nothing sells like success” — that is, the public’s perception of relative success affects sales — these discrepancies act to constrain Unix growth while boosting Microsoft’s sales.

The open-source community in general, and the BSD and Linux groups in particular, must get together to fix this by collecting and publicizing real installation numbers. One of the industry consortia or other organizations could, for example, ask every open-source developer to put an anonymous registration option in the install procedure and then set up a shared data-collection and analysis operation to receive and count the installation notices.

That’s what happens with Pine now — and, yes, there are some issues. Overall, however, Pine’s numbers are among the most credible in the industry.


Paul Murphy, aLinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide toDefenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consultingindustry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.


8 Comments

  • I’m a consultant in South-East Queensland.
    Between the half-dozen consultants I work with and myself, we’ve installed somewhere between 800 and 1,200 Linux Servers over the last 6 years – and purchased less than a dozen copies of Linux (and not server versions) in that time. About 1/4 of these are exposed to the internet and are kept up-to-date, the rest just work and so don’t get touched until they need bigger drives etc.
    We do have a number of Red Hat 6 servers still running happily – In fact I’ve got a client still running Red Hat 4.2!!

    • ?????Microsoft Gaining all the way ??????
      China is going Open source–government decicion.
      Vietnam is going open source–government decicion.
      Malaisia is going open source–government recommended.
      Korea ,Japan, India, are going open source–government recommended
      Thailand will follow
      All othe small ones in the region will follow.
      South America : general recommendations are open source orientated.
      England is having a debate over it
      Germay : Many cities are watching Munich.- motto: if they can , we can.
      Now, according to MS,
      <<<< not gaining is loosing.>>>>
      Count on your fingers.
      Question: how many super computers do you know of which are running Microsoft Software ??
      Hope you have a nice day. I have !!

      • I have been using Linux since Red Hat 5.1. I have only purchased 3 Linux distributions: Suse, SCO Linux, and Lindows. I have used every Red Hat distribution since 5.1. I have used all the Mandrake Linux distributions since 6.0. I have used Open BSD. The sales records only record 3 Linux purchases.
        Microsoft records show I have purchased DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, NT and XP.
        For every hour I spend using Windows I use Linux 5-6 hours. Even in Windows I use Open Source software (Open Office, Mozilla, Thunderbird, Gimp), etc.
        In Linux the official records do not show the entire picture.

  • Ever heard of the "No Spin Zone" on the Oreilly Factor on Fox News Channel?
    Well you need to go for some serious re-education there.
    Because thats all you are doing here. Trying in some contorted, contrived, convoluted manner to show that somehow, linux and Unix are not being clobbered by Microsoft Windows.
    Well you did not succeed.
    All the evidence shows Windows smoking linux and Unix on both the desktop and server. The IDC study merely confirmed the FACTS.
    You want proof?
    What about Microsoft server sales? UP to tune of 18% in the just completed quarter, and UP another 25% in the quarter before that one. That is REAL money, not some mindless rant by a linux shill on a bulletin board.
    Meanwhile Sun Microsystems which sells only linux and Unix machines continues to bleed sales, having just notched up NINE straight quarters of declining sales!
    And all thsoe stellar sales from Microsoft this year were WITHOUT Software Assurance as well!
    And btw, if you think companies have money to waste in these very times of very tight IT budgets, on buying Miocrosft software that they then don’t use at all, then you are smoking somthing much stronger than the Iraqui Information Minister al Sahef.
    If anything Microsft’s market share was massivly understated by the IDC study.
    Here is why: China is now the second largest PC market on the planet, having overtaken Japan just this year.
    How much is Microsoft’s sales in China? Its estimated to be around a measly $100 million. That is less than 5% Microsoft’s sales In Japan with just one tenth China’s population.
    In fact most PC’s n China are shipped "naked" witth no OS at all, whereupon the PC buyers just go to the local market and buy a cheap pirated copy of Windows to install on their computers.
    In fact if you add in the HUGE number of Windows desktops AND servers in China which were pirated and NOT counted by IDC, plus add in pirated Windows software from india, Indonesia, Philipines, Russia, Eastern Europe and even Western Europe where we still have very high rates of piracy, Microsoft’s market share ROCKETS up to at least 65% for severs at a conservative estimate, and nearly 98% for desktops.
    After all, if you go by the figures supplied by Onestat, which tracks ACTUAL web usage by operating system, Microsoft Windows has a share closer to 98% than the 94% we get from the IDC study. That pirated Windows copies from Chaina and other places coming into play for you.
    Onestat web usage figures by OS:
    1. Microsoft Windows 97.34%
    2. Apple Macintosh 1.49%
    3. Linux 0.51
    (http://www.onestat.com/html/aboutus_pressbox24.html)
    Linux doesn’t even BEGIN to compete. As for Unix, what Unix?

      • Let me see…
        There are 15 computers in this testlab room. 10 came with Windows. All of them now run either Linux or *BSD. The other 5 computers, either came with no OS or with Linux pre-installed.
        In the server room, we have ~20 servers. The newset ones came with Linux pre-installed. The older ones, with Windows, which was promptly substituted with Linux or *BSD.
        Also, we are substituting a sizeable part of our business desktops with "Linux Thin Clients", using LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project).
        As always, numbers can be twisted to say anything you want:
        * We payed for Windows (as we had no option to buy with no Windows) good money.
        * Linux pre-installed (with no limit in usage) is cheaper than Windows-preinstalled (and for just 1 to 5 user licenses). Way cheaper. The downloaded-distributions are even cheaper.
        * So in our company, using IDG’s way of counting OS usage, we are a "big" Windows user, as we have payed a lot of money for Windows.
        * The money that we have payed for Windows is much higher that the money we have payed for Linux/BSD.
        * Still, *Unix (Linux, BSD, tradicional Unix) is the prevalent (all but 2 servers) workhorse in the server room. And Linux is growing in the desktop.
        So, wich OS has the biggest usage in our company? It depends on what you are adding up: money spent or number of machines in the network or number of connections to the server (user licenses?)
        Peace

        • Another interresting issue raised with simply counting licenses sold as a means for determining the number of installations of windows comes from the corporate licensing rules they use.
          When my company buys a new PC from compaq, they are provided with a license for the current version of windows installed on it. Currently that is windows XP. Our corporate standard is windows 2000, which means that our IT department wipes out the original installation and burns a windows 2000 image to the hard drive.
          We are not allowed to resell that windows xp license, and thus have paid for 2 licenses for a single installation.
          I beleive from what IT has told us that even if were we to keep windows XP on the computer, we would need to buy an additional corporate license for it since we are not permitted by our license with MS to run the already included version.

          • did you know that 78.8% of statistics are made up and that only 24.1% of people know that?
            My point is that even with you spitting out all those stats it doesn’t really mean a great deal. I’ve got linux installed on 2 pc’s and one laptop here at home compared to two installations of windows. I could say that in my serveyed population linux is holding 60% of the desktop market to windows holding 40% and linux holding 100% of the server market. As you can see it’s not an accurate picture of the world market but it all depends on what popuation you look at, how much of that population and how you show the results.
            I wouldn’t say that windows isn’t holding a big majority of the current markets but lets leave it at that rather than getting into marketing.
            Windows has a much more accurate (though not perfect as you pointed out a few times) way of getting numbers than open-source alternatives do.
            Oh, and if you’re also getting info from sites that guess the operating system when users browse their site you should try and remember that lots of non-windows users have to configure their browsers to "spoof" themselves to appear as Internet Explorer since some sites won’t even work with the alternatives.
            Never base your findings on third party information and never take everything as it seems. It’s rarely (if ever) right.

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