What's really the most popular operating system? That depends on how you look at them and who's doing the looking. For example, Net Applications shows Windows on top of the desktop operating system mountain with 88.14% of the market. That's not surprising, but Linux -- yes Linux -- seems to have jumped from 1.36% share in March to 2.87% share in April. Has the Linux desktop seen a sudden surge in popularity?
I doubt it. I'm writing this story on a PC running Linux Mint and I've been a Linux desktop user since Bash, rather than KDE or GNOME, was the Linux desktop interface.
The Linux desktop seems to be catching on in some niches. Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical CEO, reported in 2019, "We have seen companies signing up for Linux desktop support because they want to have fleets of Ubuntu desktop for their artificial intelligence engineers." That's good news, but there really aren't that many AI and machine learning developers out there.
By and large, the Linux desktop seems to have blown its last, best chance of overtaking Windows when Windows 7 was put out to pasture earlier this year. The same problems -- no less a figure than Linus Torvalds pointed out -- still exist. "I still wish we were better at having a standardized desktop that goes across all the distribution," Torvalds said. "[It's] a personal annoyance how the fragmentation of the different vendors have, I think, held the desktop back a bit."
Other sites that monitor operating systems statistics, like StatCounter, don't see any surge in Linux popularity. If anything, Stat Counter sees Linux declining to a mere 0.7% in April from 0.78% in March.
Both Net Applications and StatCounter massage their data. Neither gives us access to the raw data. For that, you must turn to the federal government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP).
DAP gives us a running count of the last 90 days of US government website visits. While it doesn't tell us about global operating system use, it does offer us the best information we have about operating system use by Americans.
There we find that while Windows is number one on the desktop, it's far from the most popular end-user operating system. That honor, in the United States, goes to Apple's iOS, which powers iPhones, with 32.2%.
Windows comes in second with 30.9%. Digging deeper, we discover that Windows 10 is well ahead of the now out-of-date Windows 7 by 25.6% to 3.9%. A paltry 1.1% are still using Windows 8.1.
After that, Android is number three with 25.6% . Of course, Android is a mobile version of Linux. When you add in the Linux desktop's 0.9% and Chrome OS, a cloud-based Linux distro, with 1.1% , the greater Linux family comes a lot closer to Windows, but it's still in third place.
MacOS, by DAP's count, comes in at fourth place with 9.3% .
The last time I took a long, hard look at end-user operating system numbers in 2017, the Linux desktop and macOS were exactly where they are today. Both operating systems have their loyal fans, but neither has gained many new users.
The real difference in the last three years is the overall decline of the Windows desktop to iOS and Android. In 2017, Windows was the first place operating system, with iOS closing in with 22.9% and Android close behind at 16.8% .
We've seen the rise of the smartphone over the desktop for some time now. By 2012, Facebook users spent more time on the social network from their smartphones than from their PCs. We still talk about PCs as if they were the more important end-user computing device, but the truth is that honor now goes to smartphones.
Of course, the PC isn't going away. Sure, people look up websites more often from phones than they do on PCs now. They also spend most of their social time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter smartphone apps now. But, for work, you still can't beat PCs.
Indeed I wonder if the coronavirus pandemic might briefly reverse the smartphone growth as we spend more time in our home offices. But, regardless of that, for now, and tomorrow the desktop still belongs to Windows, and Americans still love their iPhones.
All the other operating systems are important in their places -- Linux for developers, Android for thrifty users, and Macs for its fans and audio, graphic, and video creators. But I see no chance that any of the others will displace iOS and Windows from the top of the operating system mountain.