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Man Bites Dog: Counting Linux In

By Paul Murphy
Oct 30, 2003 11:27 AM PT

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.

Man Bites Dog: Counting Linux In

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, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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