(Update 1: There seems to be some confusion about what I’m saying in this post, so let me be absolutely clear from the start: I am not questioning or criticizing Distrowatch’s data. Their data is, as far as I know, 100% accurate. What I’m questioning is whether or not this data is a measure of the “popularity” of any given distro, as so many news stories are claiming it is.)
(Update 2: If anybody else wants to run a story about this post, please contact me before making it sound like my blog article is somehow an official Canonical response. I’m more than happy to have a conversation with you for the sake of accuracy.)
It seems that the tech blogs both inside and outside the Linux sphere have picked up on a graph supposedly showing a decline in the popularity of Ubuntu based on statistics from Distrowatch. I’m not going to point out all of the flaws in these reports, or the basis of the graph in general, that has been done already here and here (especially in their comment threads).
Instead I want to take a step back for a moment and examine what the statistics are actually counting, and what that actually means for both Ubuntu and LinuxMint.
Hits per day
The numbers themselves come from the number of page views per day on Distrowatch’s page for each distro. So if you go to http://distrowatch.com/arch you’ve added to the count for Arch. Now the first thing this tells us is that the statistic is in no way tied to the actual number of users a distro has, just the number of people looking at that distro’s page on Distrowatch. Now there are three possible reasons why a user might visit one of these pages:
- Curiosity about a distro
- Following a link from somewhere else
- Attempting to boost the hits-per-day count for a distro
I’m going to disregard #3, because I don’t believe that anybody involved with Mint is doing anything underhanded to boost these numbers. But an examination of the other two will shed some light on what exactly is happening.
Follow that link
Even though a Distrowatch ranking isn’t connected to number of users, it’s still exciting to see your distro rise in the list, and it’s natural to want to tell people about it. Mint does it, Ubuntu does it, lots of distros do it. There’s nothing wrong with this, and if enough people are reading your announcement to impact the ranking, then it most likely deserves to be impacted.
But something all together different happens when 3rd party sources start sending people to your distrowatch page because of your rank. When the Register and PC World run articles about you being on top, their readers will naturally visit your Distrowatch page, further increasing your rank, which will in turn prompt more stories about it, sending more people to your page, etc.
While I have no doubt that Mint deserves the top spot (more on that below), I think the amount of its increase has been affected by this positive feedback loop. This cyclic reaction will likely continue for a few weeks until people finally get bored with the story, at which point I expect Mint’s numbers to fall back down into the 2500-3000 range, comfortably at #1, but well below the 7728 it’s at as I’m writing this.
All of which brings us back to the first reason for visiting a distrowatch page: Curiosity. Distrowatch is a great resource for finding out about a distro, and it’s how a lot of young distros get attention. When Qimo got a mention there, we saw a huge traffic increase, and we also rose pretty sharply in the ranking (nowhere near #1, but still something I was proud of).
But there comes a point, when a distro has become established, where the vast majority of those curious people will be going directly to the distro’s own website, rather than Distrowatch. Nobody would deny that Red Hat is one of the most used Linux distros, but it currently ranks at #42 on Distowatch. Suse ranks at #64. Even the free-as-in-beer CentOS, which we all know is widely used, is only at #9. As a general rule then, we can assume that as a distro becomes more established and gains more market and mind-share, fewer people will be going to Distrowatch to learn about it.
So what does that leave us? I like to call it “Young Buzz”, a large amount of excitement about a relatively new (in terms of mindshare) distro. This is something that absolutely describes LinuxMint. As the seemingly anti-Unity distro of choice, it has been getting a lot of talk and attention and, while I disagree with the anti-Unity sentiment, Mint is certainly deserving of attention. Its user base is growing rapidly and I hope its community is too. They are doing some interesting work with both Gnome-Shell and the Mate, the Gnome 2 fork. Every other distro will be keeping an eye on them, seeing what gains traction and what doesn’t, and I expect some of that to make its way upstream and into other distros as well.
What does it all mean?
Is LinutMint more popular that Ubuntu? No, not by any measure I have seen. Will it become more popular than Ubuntu? I don’t know, but my gut says not anytime soon. But Mint certainly has the most momentum, at least for the moment, and will continue to grow at a faster rate for at least the near future.
But they aren’t the first to be in the position, PCLinuxOS had much the same buzz a few years ago, but wasn’t able to maintain it. The challenge for Mint is to keep this momentum going, and to do that they’re going to need a strong, open, supporting community that gives new users somewhere to belong in the way the Ubuntu community does.