Forget Windows, the Real Competition is the iPhone

Linux cracks 1% of the OS client market. But does this represent the path forward, or the beginning of the end?

“Which is it to-day?” I asked, — “morphine or cocaine?”

He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. “It is cocaine,” he said, — “a seven-per-cent. solution. Would you care to try it?”

– Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four”

Ah, we do love our numbers and statistics, don’t we? A bit like a drug they can be used, for a time, to mask some of the realities around us. And this month brought some high statistics indeed!

Recently, Net Applications, a maker of web analytic tools, released the results of their device client survey, which measures the market share of operating systems making Internet requests. The result? Microsoft Windows had fallen to 87.90% share in April while Linux had rocketed to 1.02%, breaking the 1% ceiling for the first time ever.

Naturally, this news has been cause for some celebration within the OSS community.

However, we should probably back this survey up with a disclaimer: The Net Applications survey results could be considered a wee bit… flawed.

Details vary on just exactly how the results are compiled but some of the parameters are known. The results are only for North America. And only tally clients for web servers that are running Microsoft’s IIS (Internet Information Server) as a web server. And agree to be a part of the Net Applications program.

Don’t even ask how many sites that actually is. Six? Seven? I have no idea.

But does any of this matter when the numbers clearly show Linux with 1%+ market share? Holmes, again:

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, — or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

And create it we did: The Linux Desktop! The desktop is a fantastic little puzzle to wrap one’s head around. Plus it comes complete with its own Dr. Moriaty.

But in statistics as in drug abuse the ends generally justify the means, so this week you’ll be hearing a lot of, “if the Net Applications results are flawed, they’re uniformly flawed” arguments in an attempt to give these numbers some kind of credence.

In it’s rather haphazard way Net Applications is measuring something. But what they’re measuring doesn’t seem to be appearant to the open source community.

The Linux client milestone of 1% is indeed significant and if all you care to look at is that bright, shining digit, standing straight-backed as a solider in the penguin’s army, then you can probably find something to celebrate in this survey.

However, if you dig even a little deeper you’re bound to be dismayed. The brave souls can continue reading, everyone else might want to stop now and take this opportunity to get a jump on their Cinco de Mayo1 celebration. I recommend getting to the store early for your seven-layer bean dip to avoid the long lines.

We’ll wait while you wrestle your Margarita Bucket out the door.

If you look at almost everything below item #3 on this list, it’s mostly toys and cell phones. I suppose this makes sense when you consider how few traditional desktop operating systems there are, but it’s also a cause for concern because the cell phones and toys are catching up. And catching up fast.

The Net Applications list is peppered with everything from the iPhone to the Nintendo DS to the BlackBerry to WebTV.2 If this list represents anything it’s not that Linux is making market share gains, it’s that the world of computing is very rapidly changing.

Seriously, the fact that the #5 OS on this list resides on an MP3 player (the iPod Touch released just a little over 18 months ago) isn’t in some way terrifying?

But if you want to be worried about Linux’s coveted #3 position you really need to look no further than #4: the iPhone with 0.55% market share.

The iPhone was released in the US in June of 2007. So in less than two years the iPhone has more than half of the market share that it took Linux 10 years to chisel out.

And this trend is only going to continue. Even with the state of the economy, more than a million people every quarter are opting out of long-term contracts with the wireless carrier Sprint. And where are they going? Well, a great many of these people are moving to AT&T, the iPhone’s sole provider. Is Microsoft losing millions of desktops every quarter? If they are will they continue to do so when Windows 7 comes out. Or when the economy eventually (hopefully) recovers?

Let me put it another way: Based on these results, in a year’s time the third most popular OS for browsing websites will reside on a cellphone. A cellphone made by Apple on a sluggish State-side 3G network, no less.

The question is, “what then?”

Ah, but there’s no need to face all of this now. For now, we can embrace the safety of statistics (and tequila) and can spin the numbers anyway we choose.

As Adrian Kingsley-Hughes notes on his blog, “…there’s no doubt that Linux is on the up and growing at a rate similar to that of the iPhone.”

Yes, yes, I suppose it is. Take us out, Sherlock:

“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

1 Cinco de Mayo, I believe, roughly translates to “Americans have no idea what they are celebrating.”

2 I’m just curious, OpenSolaris anyone? SunOS seems to be listed (Huh? What toasters are running this thing?), just edging out the Nintendo Wii but was trounced by the Playstation.

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