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Distribution "popularity"

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By Jake Edge
December 7, 2011

There has been quite a bit of press, and some hand-wringing, over reports that Linux Mint has overtaken Ubuntu as the "most popular" Linux distribution. The reports are based on the DistroWatch rankings, which some—though notably not the DistroWatch folks—seem to think indicates the popularity of various distributions. While it's a bit hard to imagine that untold legions of Ubuntu users have switched to Linux Mint en masse, it does have a non-zero probability of being true. But there aren't, and really can't be, any numbers to back that up. Is popularity even really the best measure of a distribution?

The "rankings" that have spawned the uproar are simple page-hit counts. Each unique IP address that lands on DistroWatch's page for a given distribution increments the count for the day. It is, at best, a count of the amount of "buzz" a particular distribution has over the past one, three, six, and twelve months. It can also be fairly easily manipulated by someone who has unfettered access to a large number of IP addresses or a botnet—as well as by over-exuberant distribution fans—though there is no evidence to suggest that's what's happening here. As DistroWatch says, those numbers are:

[A] light-hearted way of measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to usage nor to quality and should not be used to measure the market share of distributions.

But, for whatever reason, Mint shows up at the top of the list for average number of hits per day (HPD) for each of the four periods. In fact, Ubuntu has "slipped" to fourth place over the last month with Fedora and openSUSE taking second and third place respectively. Mint shows nearly three times the number of HPD that any of the rest of the top four do. That's interesting, perhaps, but not meaningful. It is a self-selected "poll" that could be fairly easily manipulated—likely unintentionally.

The ranking is also heavily skewed toward desktop distributions, as can be seen by the numbers for server-oriented distributions like Red Hat (which ranks below things like GhostBSD, Zorin, and Tiny Core) or SUSE (which ranks a bit lower). Both of those distributions should have accurate sales numbers that may show a tad more popularity than reading things into the DistroWatch numbers will show. In short, even a brief look at the rankings page should be enough to deter anyone from deriving conclusions that result in headlines like "Ubuntu sees massive slide in popularity, Mint sprints ahead ... but why?".

Part of the problem here is that it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to get accurate figures for distribution usage. In fact, it goes well beyond just distributions; accurately counting users of any free or proprietary software is well-nigh impossible. Vendors who sell their software have some advantage, but even they don't know how many users there are. Microsoft can undoubtedly report how many copies of Windows it sold in the last month (quarter, year, ...), but that most certainly doesn't count the number of Windows users. That number is likely to be much higher due to unlicensed users, which probably dwarfs the not completely insubstantial number of pre-installed systems that get wiped to run other operating systems.

The usual methods to try to track users, like phoning home with some kind of unique ID, are intrusive. For free software, those mechanisms are unlikely to be tolerated by some, but even users of proprietary software may find ways to avoid being counted. Companies selling software count their users in terms of dollars (euros, ...) so, other than being able to report inflated piracy numbers as "lost sales", there is no real need for additional counting. Free software projects and distributions are different.

Those who work on free projects would certainly like to feel that their work is being used and appreciated. That's not unreasonable at all, but is popularity really the right measure of that? Even if it can be reliably measured, popularity just measures ... well ... what's popular—not what works best, solves the most problems, or anything else. Does it really matter if Ubuntu has X million users and Linux Mint has X/4 million—or the reverse? In both cases, the distributions are serving a substantial number of people and, presumably, solving lots of their problems.

There are some "active counting" efforts by various distributions but, as would be expected for free software projects, they are "opt-in" services. Fedora and openSUSE both use smolt to gather semi-anonymized installation data. Debian and Ubuntu use popcon to generate information on the popularity of various packages. While users are asked to enable these counting mechanisms at install time, it's not clear how many actually do so.

Since directly measuring users is difficult, distributions often use indirect (and fairly inaccurate) methods to try to get a handle on their number of users. Both Fedora and openSUSE count unique IP-address connections to their update servers and have fairly detailed pages that outline what they are counting (openSUSE, Fedora). Ubuntu has been notoriously lax in providing any real information on its methodology—without being shy about producing numbers like 20 million Ubuntu users—but one would guess it is doing something similar.

That kind of data collection isn't really accurate to generate a "number of users" figure, though it may be fine as an estimate. Assuming the methodology remains the same, it may also serve as a reasonable indicator of trends in the number of users. If Fedora 16 has 50% more unique IPs getting updates, that's a pretty good indicator that F16 has been adopted more widely. Comparing F16's raw numbers to those of openSUSE 11.3, for example, is much less useful.

But obsessing over estimated numbers—or illusory trends based on web page hits—seems counterproductive. While it is harder to generate numbers, the measure of a community distribution really should be how vibrant its community is. Are new people showing up, filing bugs, participating in development or design discussions, packaging new software, translating existing software, taking on new tasks, running for elected positions, and so on? Those are certainly measures of growth, though numerically hard to quantify.

Focusing on a "zero sum" game for Linux distributions is equally counterproductive. While the GNOME 3 and Unity decisions made by various distributions have generated a lot of noise (and likely some distribution and desktop environment switches), it's pretty hard to justify a "Ubuntu users are running to Mint because of Unity" stance on anything other than anecdotal evidence. If the suggested trend is even real, it could be that Mint is attracting many of the first-time Linux users that Ubuntu once did, or that it is attracting more than Ubuntu currently is. That could be due to the "buzz" factor for Mint these days, for example. Not all (or even most) growth of Linux distributions needs to come at the expense of other distributions.

Unlike the choice between Windows and OS X (or Linux and either of those), the choice between Linux distributions is far less susceptible to concerns about lock-in. Part of what free software enables is relatively easy migration between distributions, with full data and application portability, which undoubtedly leads to some "distro hopping". But it's also true that providing that freedom can attract new users. We've seen it over the past 20 years, even if the growth on the desktop is not up to what most had hoped for. Focusing on serving existing users, while attracting new ones, rather than worrying about pumping up popularity numbers, is a much more likely road to success.


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Distribution "popularity"

Posted Dec 8, 2011 9:43 UTC (Thu) by rossburton (subscriber, #7254) [Link]

The big distributions all have subdomains in the NTP pool that they use by default so can probably use hits there to extrapolate some measure of install base.

Distribution "popularity"

Posted Dec 9, 2011 19:25 UTC (Fri) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

You can use Windows without a license? I thought they fixed that. Don't you have to register a CPU serial number or something with Microsoft?

I haven't installed Windows in modern times except under my employer's mass license, so I don't know.

Distribution "popularity"

Posted Dec 9, 2011 20:59 UTC (Fri) by anselm (subscriber, #2796) [Link]

You have to enter a license key which is usually affixed to your computer. IIRC there are programs about that generate genuine-looking license-key-like strings.

Generally, Microsoft isn't all that uptight about license codes, anyway. The main reason for that is that the system malfunctions often enough that they'd rather not lock out legitimate customers due to bugs in the license verification, and also that it doesn't really matter to Microsoft if there is a certain amount of pirating going on as long as they're making enough money anyway (and with enough money in the bank to buy any of a number of smaller Latin American nation states outright they don't really need to worry). Or as Bill Gates said (or was it Ballmer), »if the Chinese have to steal an operating system they had better steal ours«.

Distribution "popularity" - unlicensed Windows

Posted Dec 9, 2011 21:57 UTC (Fri) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

But I remember talk around when Windows XP came out that you had to register with Microsoft as well (with some consternation about the fact that it meant a computer had to have Internet access) and you could transfer that registration to another computer some small number of times, and after a transfer the old computer became persona non grata for various purposes, such as updating Microsoft products.

A few years back, I bought a computer on Ebay that had Windows XP installed, and often when I wanted to install or reconfigure things, it said, "sorry, this is not a legitimate copy of Windows, you scurvy pig."

I really can't accept the idea that Microsoft doesn't mind pirating because it already has enough money. No legitimate business thinks that way. Ballmer sees his job as getting as much money as possible for the shareholders, not just enough, and I wouldn't buy Microsoft stock under any other circumstance.

Distribution "popularity" - unlicensed Windows

Posted Dec 10, 2011 0:30 UTC (Sat) by anselm (subscriber, #2796) [Link]

When the automatic license check fails, you can call Microsoft on the phone and they will usually register you anyway.

If Microsoft was to really crack down on pirated copies of Windows, which they certainly could if they wanted to, that would only drive more people to Linux, which is free of charge, without silly license restrictions, and frankly no longer that bad (especially for home use and in situations where you don't need to be able to exchange files with other users of Microsoft Office). That would spread the word that one didn't actually need Windows, and that would be the worst possible outcome as far as Microsoft is concerned. It is better for Microsoft to tolerate a certain amount of illicit copying because it preserves the 95%+ market share that is so important to them, and at the end of the day that creates more revenue than is lost by people copying stuff that they wouldn't want to or be able to pay for in the first place.

Distribution "popularity" - unlicensed Windows

Posted Dec 15, 2011 16:19 UTC (Thu) by nye (guest, #51576) [Link]

>But I remember talk around when Windows XP came out that you had to register with Microsoft as well (with some consternation about the fact that it meant a computer had to have Internet access) and you could transfer that registration to another computer some small number of times, and after a transfer the old computer became persona non grata for various purposes, such as updating Microsoft products.

Well the gist of it is that you have 30 days after installation to activate via phone or internet, which basically registers your license key as in use, and associated with a small digest[0] of some of the hardware information. If the hardware changes beyond a certain point, you have to reactivate. After reactivating more than a few times in a given period, you have to speak to a human being who will give you a manual activation code.

It's not that hard to bypass (don't think it applies to VL copies for example), but anyone doing that has to face up to the fact that they know exactly what they're doing - the purpose being to stop casual installation using the same license key for multiple computers.

[0] Small enough that you can input it via a phone; long enough that you wouldn't want to.

Distribution "popularity" - unlicensed Windows

Posted Dec 15, 2011 17:02 UTC (Thu) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

Thank you. One more question: how hard is it to get Windows install media? Say I have a perfectly valid license to run Windows, with a certificate and license key. Can I get/make a CD or flash drive to install Windows?

And how hard is it to copy Windows from one working system to another (again, assuming one has a license to run it on the target system).

Strange questions...

Posted Dec 15, 2011 20:03 UTC (Thu) by khim (subscriber, #9252) [Link]

One more question: how hard is it to get Windows install media?

What do you mean?

Say I have a perfectly valid license to run Windows, with a certificate and license key.

Then you should have an install media, too: Windows licenses and certificates are tied to specific version of Windows. You can not use license from Dell computer to install Windows on HP. You should read your actual Windows license: some of them are transferable, some not, some can be used with nLite, some can only be installed from the original CD or DVD.

And how hard is it to copy Windows from one working system to another (again, assuming one has a license to run it on the target system).

Depends on how different are HDD controllers, mostly. There are plenty of tutorials on the internet. You'll need to reactivate it, of course.

Windows licensing and installing

Posted Dec 15, 2011 21:37 UTC (Thu) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

Say I have a perfectly valid license to run Windows, with a certificate and license key.
Then you should have an install media, too:

I don't know if you know this, but it is quite common not to have it. Those kinds of things get lost. Also, I believe it is common for a computer to come with a Windows license but instead of a CD, there are files on the disk drive and the user is instructed to burn his own CD. I doubt many people do that, and if the computer breaks, there's no install media.

But from what you say, the answer to my question is that it's pretty much impossible to get Windows install media.

Of course it's possible!

Posted Dec 16, 2011 9:36 UTC (Fri) by khim (subscriber, #9252) [Link]

I don't know if you know this, but it is quite common not to have it. Those kinds of things get lost. Also, I believe it is common for a computer to come with a Windows license but instead of a CD, there are files on the disk drive and the user is instructed to burn his own CD. I doubt many people do that, and if the computer breaks, there's no install media.

Well, it's well-known fact that people rarely think ahead. I, for one, always make these backup disks and keep them around before I install Linux: it's quite a hassle to replace them if I ever decide to go back to Windows.

If people want to live without insurance then it's their right: they can always buy retail copy if Windows, so it's not a big deal.

But from what you say, the answer to my question is that it's pretty much impossible to get Windows install media.

It depends on your vendor, actually. Usually you can contact your vendor and they will ship installation disks for a nominal fee. Just remember that your vendor is Microsoft only if you bought retail copy of Windows (or if you are an enterprise and own volume license, of course). If you bought Windows from OEM (it's preinstalled on your computer, for example) then it's up to OEM to support you.

YMMV: some OEMs are very accommodating, some will ask you to jump through lots of hoops, but in the end they are the ones who should give you replacement for broken/lost copy of Windows.

P.S. Surprisingly enough tiny OEMs are the least problematic: they are too small to create their own spin of Windows thus they use some generic OEM Windows package - and these are not so hard to find. It's much harder to find Windows for some particular version of Dell or Sony.

Distribution "popularity" - unlicensed Windows

Posted Dec 16, 2011 11:56 UTC (Fri) by anselm (subscriber, #2796) [Link]

According to Microsoft, the license key and physical media belong together. You're not supposed to use any arbitrary Windows XP license key to install from any arbitrary Windows XP distribution DVD, although that often works. (Again, this is not something that Microsoft seems too keen on really cracking down on.)

Distribution "popularity"

Posted Jan 2, 2012 17:18 UTC (Mon) by dmag (guest, #17775) [Link]

> But, for whatever reason, Mint shows up at the top of the list

Seems rather obvious to me.

I assume most Ubuntu users are not Linux geeks. They have no idea that there is "more to Linux" than just Ubuntu (and they don't care.) So only the disgruntled Ubuntu users go to DistroWatch. Once they are there, they don't click on Ubuntu because they've used it. Mint gets clicked on a lot because it is the most-discussed alternative to Ubuntu.

It's sort of like wondering "If 95% of desktops run Microsoft Windows, why isn't the Microsoft home page the most popular page on the planet?"


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