Linux has over 3% of the desktop market? It's more complicated than that

StatCounter says it does, but a closer look reveals old-school Linux desktops are still stuck at a lower number. If you take a broader view, however, Linux is the most popular end-user operating system of all.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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Getty Images/Andriy Onufriyenko

Every few years, people get excited that maybe this will be the year of the Linux desktop. Now, I can argue, and I have, that happened long ago. But when you're talking about the traditional PC running a desktop Linux system such as Linux Mint, MX Linux, or Ubuntu, the numbers remain minute. In StatCounter's latest desktop market share numbers, Linux has made it up to 3.08%

StatCounter June 2023 Desktop Statistics

By StatCounter's reckoning, the Linux desktop has made it over 3% market share. 


Now, that's not bad, but it's not good either. In comparison, StatCounter has Windows at 68.15%, MacOS in second place with 21.38%, and Chrome OS taking third at 4.15% But, at least Linux isn't in last place. That dubious honor goes to FreeBSD, with 0.01%.

Also: The best Linux laptops

Mind you, there are some groups, such as developers, in which Linux is widely used. For example, the market research company Statista has found 45% of programmers use Linux

Still, I doubt that even over 3% of average users are running a conventional Linux desktop.

You see, StatCounter uses its own proprietary method for counting desktops, web browsers, and so on. The site calculates its "Global Stats on the basis of more than 5 billion page views per month, by people from all over the world onto our 1.5 million+ member sites." That's impressive, but while the company states its numbers are "independent, unbiased stats on Internet usage trends," we don't know exactly how it calculates its numbers. 

I prefer to use data from the US federal government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP) for the most accurate, albeit US-centric, operating system, and browser numbers.

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DAP's numbers come from billions of visits over the past 90 days to over 400 US executive branch government domains. That's about 5,000 total websites and includes every cabinet department. 

DAP gets its raw data from a Google Analytics account. DAP has open-sourced the code, which displays the data on the web and its data-collection code. Best of all, unlike the others, you can download its data in JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format so you can analyze the raw numbers yourself.

In the US Analytics site, which summarizes DAP's data, you'll find desktop Linux, as usual, down towards the bottom at 1.7%. Windows, as always, is on top with 30.6%, followed by MacOS at 8.5%, then Linux, and oddly enough, ChromeOS coming in last place with 1.4%. 

My gut feeling is that there are far more Chromebook users out there than there are "Linux" users. For some reason, ChromeOS doesn't show up that well on anyone's desktop operating system analysis. 

Also: 5 reasons why Chromebooks are the perfect laptop for most people

Chromebook sales numbers tell a different story. In its 2020 personal computing device market analysis, research firm Canalys reported that Chromebook vendors' overall market almost quadrupled in size in 2020. Canalys Research Director Rushabh Doshi said, "Demand for Chromebooks is through the roof." Covid drove that jump.

Since then, according to research company IDC's count, Chromebook sales numbers have shrunk. Gartner agrees, but the research powerhouse also pointed out all PC sales numbers are expected to be down in 2023. Even so, by Gartner's math, ChromeOS's market share still has 6.8% of the worldwide PC market in 2022 and 19.7% within the US. 

So, why don't they show up in the user statistics!? Darned if I know. My educated guess is that many Chromebooks are being counted as other operating systems using the Chrome web browser. 

Earlier, I mentioned that we've already seen the year of the Linux desktop. We just didn't recognize it. I can make the arguments on two fronts. 

Also: The best Linux distros for beginners

First, 96.3% of the top million web servers run Linux.You name it -- Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.-- it's running Linux. It's the same story with the cloud, where Linux runs 90% of the cloud. Even Microsoft Azure users run Linux more than they do Windows Server. In other words, if you spend your day using web applications and services, congratulations, you, like most people, are a Linux user.

Another way of looking at the question is: "Are you a Linux end-user?" In that case, ChromeOS, which is just Linux with a Chrome browser interface, counts. That brings Linux desktop use up to 7.23% by StatCounter's reckoning. Or, using DAP's data, 3.1%, 

But, wait, I said "end-user," didn't I? So, Android, which is a mobile Linux distro, counts too. By this reckoning, StatCounter now has the Linux family in the top spot, well over Windows, with a grand total of 44.98%! Using this counting methodology, DAP has Linux users at 23.6%. Now, these are significant numbers. 

Also: Linux distro hopping is a fun way to find the perfect desktop operating system

What's the difference? We're no longer a PC-driven society. Based on my website analysis, two out of three people use smartphones today. So, it's no surprise that worldwide StatCounter has Android as the most popular operating system with 40.16%, while Apple iOS is at the top of DAP's US-centric count with 35.6%.

So folks, as someone who has been using the Linux desktop since the "interface" choice was between csh and Bash instead of Cinnamon, GNOME, and KIDE, I wish the traditional Linux desktop numbers were higher too. We'll just have to be content with the top-dog operating system in all other computing devices -- servers, clouds, supercomputers, and smartphones. 

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