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February 16, 1999

HOW BIG IS THE LINUX BASE ANYWAY?

By CBR Staff Writer

By Timothy Prickett-Morgan

As near as anyone can tell, about 5 million Linux licenses were distributed in 1998, about double the number shipped in 1997. Total shipments by the end of 1998 were around 7.5 million, give or take a few million. (Probably less than half of those are actually in use, since recent downloads are upgrades to past ones.) The Linux base appears to have tripled from 500,000 total shipments in 1995 to 1.5 million in 1996. IDC says that about 740,000 Linux licenses were distributed for servers during 1998 – representing about one-seventh of total Linux licenses shipped, a ratio that is consistent with the NT Server versus NT Workstation shipments. Whether or not the IDC breakdown on Linux when it comes to server versus desktop use makes any sense is really hard to say. As Red Hat’s CEO Robert Young likes to put it, about two- thirds of the Linux base uses it as a server environment and another two-thirds uses it as a workstation environment. It’s hard to say exactly how fast the base will grow this year, but my guess is that growth will accelerate from an already high level, with perhaps as many as 10 million new Linux licenses shipped this year. Maybe as many as 15 million. If you think that’s a lot, it isn’t. 87 million new desktop operating system licenses shipped in 1998, and 1999 will easily break 100 million. So 15 million Linux licenses is still, comparatively speaking, peanuts.

A force to be reckoned with

How does Linux stack up against its nemesis, Windows NT? Pretty well when it comes to growth, but Linux is about 18 months behind NT when it comes to ship rates for both desktops and servers. In 1996, the NT base more than tripled to just under 6 million units shipped since 1993. In 1997, another 9 million NT licenses shipped, bringing the total to just under 15 million. Last year, Microsoft added another 14.7 million, bringing the total shipments to just under 30 million. About one-sixth of the NT licenses shipped were for servers, the remainder were for workstations. It is similarly safe to assume that about half of those NT licenses are upgrades to existing machines, effectively taking 15 million of the 30 million shipments out of play. I think plenty of NT licenses get re-used and illegally copied. Even so, I think only about half of the total NT licenses shipped are in real, productive use today. If this is true, the real NT base is only four times the size of the real Linux user base. Linux is growing four times faster as a server environment that NT is, and will likely catch up in raw units shipped by early- to mid-2000 if present trends continue. And within three years, the total Linux base could be pushing 50 to 60 million units shipped with some 40 to 50 million real users (provided applications and PC vendor support becomes widely available), and that will make Linux a commercial force for Microsoft to reckon with. At those numbers, it becomes completely plausible that Microsoft, for greedy little self-preservation reasons that are the very essence of capitalism, finally and begrudgingly ports its Office and BackOffice suites to Linux. Now that would be justice.

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