Counting installs

Counting installs

Summary: One of the things hampering the whole open source movement today is our failure to count and report our successes. As I put it in something I wrote for Linuxinsider almost two years ago:  In management you get what you measure; in volume sales, you get what the press reports.

TOPICS: Open Source

One of the things hampering the whole open source movement today is our failure to count and report our successes. As I put it in something I wrote for Linuxinsider almost two years ago:


In management you get what you measure; in volume sales, you get what the press reports. In the case of Linux installs, what the press reports is license sales numbers --and that's a terrible mistake hurting everyone involved with open source products like Linux.

It hasn't gotten any better since and it's probably well past the time to do something about it. I imagine that lots of people have ideas about what that should be -- but here's mine.

Installation scripts, whether for distributions, applications, or anything else that qualifies for the open source label, should have a self-reporting option that's enabled by default. On installation, whether that's an interactive process or not, this should send a minimal installation report to a central repository. That repository should then be publicly queryable.

It's not obvious what information should be collected. My own view is that less is better, because transmission of the data has to be voluntary and the more data you ask for, the more people will turn it off.

For example (although I didn't know about this until Joe Brockmeier mentioned it in an email) Debian's popcon project does some of this but extends far beyond merely counting installs to provide weekly reports on applications usage. That's great stuff, and clearly valuable, but comes at the cost of turning a lot of people off because of the apparent intrusion into normal operations. From the popcon project's perspective, that's not a decisive issue; from ours it is because high participation rates are key to achieving our purpose: driving open source acceptance by showcasing its success.

The Pine people, I think, get closer to the ideal I have in mind: theirs is a one-shot installation report that you can turn off, but most people leave on. As a result their installation numbers are among the most credible in the industry.

Thus I'd suggest asking for an absolute minimum and making sure that anything we ask can be automatically collected by the installation script. We might, for example, ask for what is being installed, whether it's an upgrade, what hardware architecture it's being installed on, and perhaps the Ethernet address of the machine (or its primary NIC card if it's a PC). That last one, of course, could be sensitive, but we need something that will let us catch intentional frauds -- people sending us the install message hundreds or thousands of times without actually doing the indicated installs.

As I see it, the installer would use the email queue to send its message to the repository for automated processing -- and obviously would not expect a reply. Where that repository should be is another matter: ideally a university or large institution with highly reliable network connections should take it on -- ZDNet, for example, has those resources and one could hope that some senior people would see this as a nice way to gather news while giving back to the open source community.

Repository side code development shouldn't be a big deal -- in fact I'll volunteer, if there's enough interest among applications and distribution developers, to write, test, and initially maintain at least release 0.1 of a PostgresSQL-based application to handle that side of things.

Readers are asked to comment, therefore, on all aspects of this: whether this should be done, on how it should be done, who should host it, and on what information, including audit and control information, should be collected.

Topic: Open Source

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  • would be good to have a more detailed system

    Take Debian for example, when you run debian update, the software profile of the machine could be submitted to a database, and the users total for packages published and forwarded to the software writers.

    As a GPL program author, I'd love to know how many people are benefitting from my efforts.
    (and which versions they use).
    If users systems also collated the run times of the packages to see how often people ran products, this would again be wonderful for targeting effort. Just because something is installed, doesn't mean the user actually use it.

    An easy feedback system could be useful too. If users could easily say "I hate the way this feature works" to the developer, then this would be a good thing. Currently it is not a point and click level activity to contact developers.

    It could be possible to have product news distributed via the same sort of system, with
    priority, so users can choose to only see important news.
    (I think the RSS standard could be used as part of this information system).
  • What to send?

    Well first let the user interact with it. Second that is a very easy question. Why do people make things so damn complicated when not needed.

    Send the following to a repository:
    1. Distribution name and version.
    2. Install type (Desktop/Server(type of)/firewall/ etc..)
    3. CPU Manuf and speed
    4. System memory

    Done. Now you can build from there how and where and how much Linux is being used. This would also show a lot of people are re-vamping older systems with Linux instead of buying a new PC and new OS.

    There, now how friggen hard is that?
    Linux User 147560
  • This is a good idea, Paul.

    I'm 100% behind you on this. Without proper accounting of the actual inroads Linux is making, it's impossible to make a business case with numbers-minded executives. Be careful about coming up with too many good ideas though! Remember what happened to King, and Jesus Christ, for that matter.
    • I'm one to talk....

      Right now I'm working on an electric car powered by hydrogen/oxygen created with a highly efficient microwave induced electrolysis system. Exxon Mobil's hit teams are on their way to my house as we speak... :)
  • Paul is really on to something here...

    Linux doesn't have any marketing behind it, period.

    The closest we get are groups like the OSI, or OSDL. They try, but they really don't have the budget to compete on any medium.

    Look at the ads that appear next to this blog. They're from Microsoft or Microsoft suppliers. (The one above what I'm writing now is a Lenovo ThinkPad ad.)

    This from an OS that dominates on servers, that is making strides in the enterprise space, that has many small business "customers" around the world.

    If Linux were closed source, delivered from one supplier, this kind of market power would mean huge flows of marketing money coming to, well, ZDNet. (That would be a very good thing IMHO.)

    But that's not the case, precisely because Linux is open source.

    Paul speaks here to what would be PR rather than advertising, but marketing encompasses both these functions, and more.

    We lack the institutional heft of an Apple or Microsoft. We have to build our own heft.

    Yet this penguin continues to tap dance around all obstacles, and continues to grow.

    That's amazing.
  • wrong Pine link and more

    I think that your Pine People link was probably not meant to be
    the Printers Industry of New England website. I think that the
    intended link was related to the Pine email program authored by
    the folks at the University of Washington and which is widely
    used in lots of university settings. Look at this link for their self
    counting statistics, which is relevant as an analogy: http://

    As for collecting the data on how really pervasive Linux is, while
    I love the idea of a central repository getting automatic
    messages, how about starting even simpler. Why doesn't OSDL
    or someone get some universities to do some straight forward
    old fashioned polling. Try going out to companies and asking
    them "how do you use Linux?" numbers of machines, types,
    uses, distro version, licensed (or not), supported (or not) by
    who? Obviously, sales based studies are blind to a lot of what is
    happening, just look at oem's building products like appliances
    that run on Linux but that they roll their own instead of using an
    off-the-shelf distro. We need some visibility into the enormity
    of the real world of Linux adoption. Turn loose the Linux
    Census! Send out an army of students with questionaires and
    let's see what is really happening in the world of business.