The most popular end-user Linux distributions are...

...almost certainly not the ones you're thinking of.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Take a second and think about end-user Linux. Now guess: Which is the most popular of all?

If you're a long time Linux user, chances are you guessed Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, or Fedora.

You'd be wrong.

The most popular end-user Linux, without any question, is Android. In 2014, Gartner estimates that there will be a billion Android tablets and smartphones sold in that year. Gartner predicts that more Android units alone will ship than all Apple and Microsoft powered devices combined..

Yes, Android is Linux. It was always Linux. There were differences at one time, but Android officially rejoined the Linux family in March 2012.

OK, so what do you think is the second most popular Linux? This one is trickier. There are no useful desktop Linux surveys.

The closest we can come is DistroWatch's Page Hit ranking. Distrowatch is the master Linux desktop tracking site for desktop Linux user data and news. But as the DistroWatch site managers themselves write, "The DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking statistics 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. They simply show the number of times a distribution page on DistroWatch.com was accessed each day, nothing more."

Even so, it's the closest we have to a way of measuring which Linux desktop operating systems are hot and which ones are not. So, I find it surprising that what I believe to be the second most popular end-user Linux desktop doesn't show up on DistroWatch at all.

Still, my pick for the second most possible Linux desktop is...

Google's Chrome OS.

Yes, Chrome OS is also Linux. It's Linux that uses Google's Chrome Web browser as its main interface.

We don't know how many copies of Chrome OS -- or to be more precise how many Chromebooks running Chrome OS -- are out there. Chromebook's numbers are confusing.

With everyone from Linux's top experts to Amazon buyers praising it, I have to think that Chrome OS is now the most popular desktop Linux of all.

Vince Vizzaccaro, EVP of Marketing and Strategic Alliances for NetApplications's NetMarketShare (the site most often quoted for operating system and Web browser popularity), told me that they do measure Chromebook usage, but it hasn’t surpassed 0.1 percent in any market, so it doesn’t show up in our reports." At most, Vizzaccro said, it was ringing up to a minute, "0.02 percent usage."

At the same time, Amazon's top-selling laptop since January 2013 has been Samsung's low-end, ARM-powered Chromebook. Today, June 24, 2013, the $249 Samsung Chromebook is still Amazon's top-selling laptop.

Besides Samsung, many other PC vendors are now backing Chrome OS. Acer, HP, Lenovo, and Google, with its own high-end Chromebook Pixel all have models in the marketplace.

It's getting so you can find Chromebooks everywhere. Best Buy, Office Depot, Office Max, Fry’s and TigerDirect are all either already selling Chromebooks or will be summer's end. Acer is even selling its $199 C710-2856 Chromebook at Walmart, the United States' favorite superstore.

Someone, many someones, must be buying Chromebooks or so many vendors wouldn't be backing it. Pre-installed desktop Linux from major computer OEMs first showed up in May 2007 when Dell backed Ubuntu, but it's always been a small market. Even at the height of the Linux netbook craze in late 2008, I don't recall seeing so much support for Linux desktops.

It's not just Joe and Jane User looking for a cheap notebook. Linus Torvalds, Linux's founder, loves the Chromebook Pixel, albeit he's running Fedora instead of Chrome OS on it.

Chrome OS does have its support among Linux's royalty. Greg Kroah-Hartman, a top Linux kernel developer, recently wrote of the Chromebook Pixel that while he has issues with it, "My day-job (Linux kernel work) means that I can't use Chrome OS as I can't change the kernel, but almost everyone else can use Chrome OS, especially if your company uses Google Apps for email and the like. Chrome OS is really good, I like it, and I think it is the way forward for a large segment of laptop users. My daughter weekly asks me if I'm willing to give the laptop to her to reinstall Chrome OS on it, as that's her desktop of choice, and this laptop runs it better than anything I've seen."

With everyone from Linux's top experts to Amazon buyers praising it, I have to think that Chrome OS is now the most popular desktop Linux of all.

As for the "traditional" Linux desktop, the current DistroWatch list from fifth place to first, reads like this: Fedora, Debian, Mageia, Ubuntu, and Mint.

The only surprise on that list is Mageia, which is a Mandriva fork that I've honestly never seen anyone use. Maybe I'm just not hanging out with the right crowd.

Personally, my own top Linux distributions mirror the list of the most popular ones. I use Android on my tablets and my smartphone; Chrome OS on a Chromebook Pixel; and Mint on my Dell desktop and my Lenovo ThinkPads.

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