Sizing the Linux Market

Robert F. Young <>

January 11, 1997

The Problem

Freely-distributable software has many advantages, particularly advantages related to cooperative development, but it does have one disadvantage that we know of: there is no way of knowing how many people might be using any particular piece of code.

Not knowing how many users an operating system has causes many odd problems, the worst of which is for companies who would like to work in the Linux market. They cannot plan properly without know whether they are dealing with thousands or millions of potential customers.

For reference, we use the terms Linux "users" and Linux "machines" interchangeably as we estimate that for every computer that has more than one user there is at least one user who is running more than one Linux machine; in fact, there may be either many more users than machines or machines than users, we simply have no way of knowing.

Use of This Paper

This paper is our attempt to provide as much as is currently known about the size of the Linux market. It is based on estimates that are drawn from the most reliable sources that we can find. Having said that it should be noted that these are only estimates and if you feel that you have better data than that which is shown here I'd be thrilled to hear it. You are welcome to use this paper for any purpose you see fit provided you:

Data Sources We Did Not Use

We originally collected this data for our own marketing purposes. Besides the sources of data we eventualy chose, there are several others that are certainly valid and useful but did not meet our needs. This is not to be taken as any form of comment on the validity of that work, and if you wish to prepare your own estimates, you will want to choose from all available data.

Internet-Based Linux Counters

The most well known of these is the Linux Counter, a voluntary registration system managed by Harald Tveit Alvestrand. More information can be found at

Sales of Linux CD-ROMs

While this does not give an answer itself, it does corroborate some of the other data we do use. Its strength is primarily that it indicates that there is a healthy and growing market for Linux products. The problem with this data is that we do not know if each CD-ROM is being used to install many Linux computers, or conversely if most CD-ROMS are being sold as updates to users who are already running Linux from a previous installation.

While US suppliers represented (in our opinion) the majority of the Linux products shipped during the year there were significant numbers of non-US-based CD-ROMs manufactured and sold in countries including Germany, Japan, France, the UK, Taiwan, and China.

Downloads by FTP

One of the great mysteries of Linux usage is that there is no way to know the number of Linux users who download the product by anonymous FTP. These users range from students and users in developing countries whose primary interest is the low cost to advanced engineering groups who prefer to download these tools to ensure that they are using the very latest versions of all the tools and utilities.

Our Data Sources

Magazine Surveys

Because of the problems of counting numbers of copies of Linux distributed as shown above we chose instead to base our estimates on counting the number of Linux users against the number of UNIX® users. While far from an exact science, the number of UNIX users has been tracked and estimated by more credible organizations using more sophisticated techniques than we are pretending to use.

Four other publications that have looked at Linux usage are more interesting:

Linux Users as a Percentage of UNIX Users

The current UNIX industry figures are that there are 6,000,000 active UNIX users. Taking the above publications as representative of this industry, we come up with a population of Linux users of between 11% and 34% of the total of UNIX users, or between 600,000 and 2,000,000.

Red Hat Software's Customer Data

Our own experience selling to and supporting Linux users has highlighted an important fact that bears on the above numbers. It is our experience that the majority of our customers have not used UNIX previously. Our registration system survey indicates that 56.2% of Linux users have not previously used UNIX, or conversely that only 43.8% have had previous experience with UNIX.

Non-UNIX users would have had no reason to read or subscribe to any of the UNIX magazines listed above. This would mean that the above estimates of Linux users are only 43.8% of the actual total.

The total population of Linux users then becomes:

Low estimates: 600,000 + 768,000 = 1,368,000

High estimates: 2,000,000 + 2,560,000 = 4,560,000

These numbers of course do not include the users who have downloaded Linux at no cost, and the Linux users in countries and markets with whom we do not currently have much contact.

Red Hat's Official January 1997 Estimate of Linux Users

In summary, based on the above methodology and our own rough feel for these numbers, we estimate to within a margin of error of +/-25% that there are between 3,000,000 and 5,000,000 active Linux users.

It is interesting to compare this figure our rough estimates of the numbers of Linux users in past years:

end of 1993 100,000
1994 500,000
1995 1,500,000
1996 3,000,000 to 5,000,000

Please send email to if you have any conflicting or corroborating data.

Copyright © 1997 Red Hat Software, Inc.