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Lies, damned lies and statistics

November 25, 2011 36 comments

After awakening from a Thanksgiving-induced food coma — actually, it wasn’t that bad — most of the daily articles about Linux posted this morning by our friends in Mountain View known as Google revolved around the fact that Ubuntu is dropping like a lead zeppelin in the Distrowatch standings, while Linux Mint is surging.

Ireland 1, Isle of Man 0.

There is no surprise here, at least on Linux Mint’s part. Plus, I think it’s interesting to see how that Unity thing is working out for Ubuntu, and as I’ve said before, I’d venture to say “not very well” (which is why, as a frequent Xubuntu user, I fight the urge to be smug).

All that has been written recently about this issue would normally be interesting except for a couple of unmentioned, and glaring, caveats missing from the stories by those who are ringing Ubuntu’s death knell.

First, Distrowatch numbers are based on page visits, not downloads. Show me the downloads, and then let’s talk. Web page hits don’t tell me if people are actually downloading a particular distro and using it, or if they’re just looking at the pages for whatever reason they might. Page visits might translate into distro downloads, but they also might be visits to forums, wikis, etc., as well. So I’m not convinced this is a valid measurement.

Second, even if you were to use Distrowatch’s page-view metric as your yardstick, you’d still have to take into account that a distro’s recent new version release — Linux Mint and Fedora, while always both close to the top at Distrowatch, qualify here — gets an extra bounce in views by virtue of the fact that, well, these distros have released a new version. An increase in visits from curious folks doesn’t necessarily mean more downloads and subsequently more distro use.

In talking to others and in taking a look at the FOSS landscape lately, my sense is that the numbers for Linux Mint reflect a rising interest that is translating into new users and new community members, whether they’re refugees from Ubuntu, they’re coming over from other distros or just brand new “walk-ins” using Linux for the first time. After all, Linux Mint has done a huge service to FOSS by developing the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE) and MATE, and for that reason perhaps people are joining the ranks of the Minted. Couple that with the recent edict of Unity uber alles handed down by Ubuntu SABDFL* Mark Shuttleworth, and you have the recipe for a rise in Linux Mint at the expense of Ubuntu.

But I’d rather have more accurate data to back this up.

Show me the downloads.

*SABDFL — Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life, a moniker picked up from a recent blog item by Steven Rosenberg. Thanks, Steven.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office. Watch this space.)

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