​What's the most popular Linux of them all?

The data's messy for picking out the most popular Linux distributions, but there are some things we know we know.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Let's cut to the chase. Android is the most popular of all Linux distributions. Period. End of statement. But that's not the entire story.

Still it must be said, according to StatCounter, Android is the most popular of all operating systems. By a score of 39.49 percent to 36.63 percent, Android beats out Windows for global personal device supremacy. Sorry Windows, you had a nice run, but between your smartphone failures and the PC decline, your day is done.

But, setting Android aside, what's the most popular Linux? It's impossible to work that out. The website-based analysis tools, such as those used by StatCounter, NetMarketShare, and the Federal government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP), can't tell the difference between Fedora, openSUSE, and Ubuntu.

DAP does give one insightful measurement the others sites don't give us. While not nearly as popular as Android, Chrome OS is more popular than all the other Linux-based desktops combined by a score, in April 2018, of 1.3 percent to 0.6 percent of end users.

As for what most people think of as "Linux distros," the best data we have comes from the DistroWatch's Page Hit ranking. DistroWatch is the most comprehensive desktop Linux user data and news site.

But you can't make too much of their numbers. As the DistroWatch site managers themselves say, "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."

Still, DistroWatch is aware that their site can be abused by people who want to flood the "ballot box" with votes for their favorite distro. So, counters are no longer displayed on the individual distributions pages, all visits are logged, and only one hit per IP address per day is counted.

So, keeping all that in mind, Linux Mint, my favorite desktop Linux, has recently been knocked off the top of the DistroWatch by Manjaro Linux.

Manjaro Linux, for those of you who haven't met it yet, is based on Arch Linux. Arch Linux also has its fans, but it's seen by some as being difficult to install. By contrast, Manjaro is seen as easier to install and run. Manjaro uses the simple, fast Xfce desktop, which makes it fast even on older hardware. I'll be kicking its tires soon.

Google Linux Distro Searches

When people search on a specific Linux disto, chances are they're searching for Ubuntu.


But, there's still another way to get insight on what's really the most popular Linux and that's Google Trends. With this, you can use Google's search data to see what people are searching on. In my case, I went looking for Linux distro names.

What I found was that by far the Linux most people want to know about was Ubuntu. Ubuntu was on top with a score of 91 with a typical week of searches. It was followed by Debian, 18; Red Hat, 6; SUSE, 3; and Manjaro, 1. When I switched out Linux Mint for Manjaro, Mint jumped up to third place with 7. This suggests to me that while Manjaro has many fans, the larger population is still more interested in Mint.

Looking throughout the last year of searches, Ubuntu clearly dominated the others. Even at its lowest point, Ubuntu was well ahead of Debian by 79 to 13.

When I focused my Google Trends analysis on just the United States, Red Hat jumped into second place by a typical score of 18 to 12. But that was still far, far behind Ubuntu. In the same period, Ubuntu cruises above its rivals with a score of 84.

I also looked in on which Linux distribution was big in the cloud. According to The Cloud Market: AWS EC2 Statistics, Ubuntu continued to rule.

With servers, it's hard to pin down data. After looking at a variety of sources, Ubuntu and CentOS, a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) clone, and RHEL are clearly the most popular in the United States. In Europe, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) is also a contender.

So, what's really the most popular?

By my reckoning, for end users, it's Android, followed by Chrome OS, with the Debian/Ubuntu/Mint family coming on top of the Linux desktop distributions. That said, Arch and Manjaro are making a desktop move. In the server/cloud world, Ubuntu, followed by CentOS, RHEL, and SLES, in roughly that order, are the most important distributions.

Related Stories:

Editorial standards