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Ubuntu market-share is in a nosedive (and that's ok)
No Linux distribution can remain #1 forever, right?
I’m going to propose an idea that, to many of you, might seem radical:
Ubuntu, the long-term king of Linux distributions, is the king no longer. In fact… it is currently in (roughly) 3rd place… and may see itself in 6th or 7th place by the end of 2022.
Don’t believe me? Think this couldn’t possibly be true?
Follow along as we walk through the details… if, by the end of this article, you still think Ubuntu will retain its title of “Linux King”… feel free to yell at me across the Internet.
In 2004, the Linux world was dominated by Red Hat, SUSE, Debian, Slackware, and Mandrake.
While Ubuntu technically came into existence during 2004… it was barely a blip on the radar.
By the very next year, 2005, Ubuntu had swooped in and claimed title of “most popular Linux distribution” — absolutely obliterating any competition. The entire Linux ecosystem shifted, in a dramatic way, in less than 12 months.
This wasn’t the first time such wild changes in market-share have happened with Linux distributions — the 1990s and early 2000s are littered with the corpses of Linux distributions that were, at one point, “household names”.
Remember “Yggdrasil Linux/GNU/X”? How about “Softlanding Linux System”? “TAMU”? “MCC”? Each of those were, at one point or another, a “big dog” in the Linux world. Shoot, most people nowadays don’t even remember “Knoppix” (the original king of “Live CDs”)… and that distribution is still alive.
To paraphrase a wise, wise man: “Things move pretty fast in the Linux world. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
In fact, if you look at the market-share of various Linux Distributions over the years… it is absolute chaos. The only constant… is change.
That chart is wild and crazy. It looks like a series of roller coasters created by a madman.
Note: Measuring the relative market-share of Linux distributions is incredibly difficult. There are many sources of data, with each measuring different things... in different ways.
Very few Linux distributions measure and release true user count information. The ones that do release that information… do so inconsistently. And each tends to have their own mechanism for measuring user base size (downloads of iso’s, web traffic, unique IPs hitting repositories, etc.). Which makes comparisons between Linux distributions incredibly difficult.
DistroWatch, Google Search Trends, ProtonDB, web stats, traffic to articles and videos about a given distro, “noticing what people run at conferences”, “gut feeling of user interest”… all of these can be added together to get, if nothing else, a good view of market-share trends over time.
All that said, there has been one constant since 2005: Ubuntu is popular.
Depending on how you measure that data, since 2005, Ubutu has either consistently been #1 (if you count Ubuntu-based distributions, such as Linux Mint, as Ubuntu)… or very close to it. Every single year.
That appears to be changing. Rapidly.
The Gamers are Dropping Ubuntu
Take a look at the following chart (put together by BoilingSteam.com, based on data supplied by ProtonDB) — covering 2019 to present (early 2022).
This data set is really measuring the distributions used by active gamers who happen to be using Linux to play their PC games. It’s not measuring usage in data-centers or as development or cloud virtual machines. We’re looking at Linux PCs playing video games here.
Notice that Orange portion? That’s Ubuntu.
On the far left, in 2019, Ubuntu is at 43.6% — totally dominating all other distributions.
On the far right, in 2022, Ubuntu is down to 15.5%. Significantly behind both Arch (at 22.7%) and Manjaro (which is based on Arch, at 17.8%).
What’s more, we see Pop OS, Endeavor, and Fedora all making significant gains in market-share. At the current rate of growth, all three will surpass Ubuntu later this year.
What people use to play video games is a major indicator of what they will use in other areas of their computing life. This has been true for every single computer platform and OS throughout the entire history of personal computers.
Add on top of this a rather interesting turn of events: Valve opted to drop Ubuntu (which it used as the first supported distro for Steam) for the new SteamDeck handheld. No Ubuntu. Arch.
It’s Not Just the Gamers
Over on DistroWatch.com — which really only tracks the popularity of each distribution on that specific website (but is a good indicator of change over time) — Ubuntu is currently ranked at #6.
Why this is incredibly significant:
Ubuntu just released, a few days ago, their latest “Long Term Support” release (version 22.04). These events are big deal in the Ubuntu world, and only happen every two years.
Which means… we would expect to see Ubuntu jump up a few slots in the “DistroWatch rankings”. But that didn’t happen. Despite a big, “once-every-two-years” release… interest in Ubuntu appears to be, at best, flat.
So, while DistroWatch is not a great metric (by itself) to measure overall market-share… it is an added indicator of the lagging interest in Ubuntu. In general.
But Ubuntu is Popular! Always! Forever!
We, as humans, have a tendency to believe that the way things are — right now — is they way they will remain. And, when we have such thoughts, we are almost always wrong.
Relevant Examples: AOL, MySpace, Yahoo, Lycos… Yggdrasil Linux, Softlanding Linux… the list goes on and on.
The odds of Ubuntu staying the “top dog” in the world of Linux much longer was always, at best, a long shot.
And now we have data showing a distinct drop in Ubuntu usage, accompanied by a significant growth spike in multiple other Linux distributions.
My Prediction: Ubuntu to be the 7th largest distro by end of 2022
Two years ago, I was convinced that Canonical (the parent company of Ubuntu) was on the verge of selling itself to another Big Tech firm (Microsoft seemed like an obvious choice).
The big selling point for such a transaction was the relative popularity of Ubuntu.
Now, in early 2022, with numbers dropping fast… the market position for selling Canonical (or taking it public) is not a good one for the company.
Flash forward to December of 2022 — 8 months from now. What position will Ubuntu be in at that point?
If I had to wager a guess, based on past track records (of both Ubuntu and other Linux distros) combined with the current market trend… I would say that Ubuntu should be able to hold on to the #7 spot in terms of over-all Linux distribution popularity.
I would also say it seems likely that, somewhere in that time frame, existing Ubuntu-based distributions are likely going to start looking at migrating their system over to another base (such as pure Debian or Arch)… if they haven’t already.
This is not (necessarily) a bad thing
If you are an Ubuntu fan, this may seem like doom and gloom… but it really doesn’t need to be.
Every company (and project) experiences set backs. Every single one. This could be just the kick-in-the-pants that the Ubuntu team needs in order to make some significant changes to their system… changes that could help make Ubuntu more appealing to gamers, and all the other people that they are loosing right now.
Likewise, there’s really no shame in being among the top 10 Linux distributions. It is entirely possible to build a significant business based on that market-share.
… it’s just not #1.
Now. If you still don’t agree with me… that’s totally fine. Feel free to tell the entire Internet how wrong I am.
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