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Who really is the leading distributor? This week SuSE put out a press release on the latest PC Data report. SuSE certainly has reason to brag: according to this report, SuSE now has 48% of the U.S. retail Linux market. That's a full 20% above the nearest competitor. Not bad for a company which recently shut down most of its U.S. presence.
Of course, many of us here in the U.S. find that figure a little hard to credit. The high quality of SuSE's product is well known, and the distribution does seem to be gaining mindshare here. But SuSE does not, in any long-term sense, own half the U.S. market. What's going on here, of course, is that these figures are for the month of February, when SuSE released version 7.1 of its distribution. New releases will always cause a spike in sales, and the fact that this release was the first by a major distributor to include the 2.4 kernel must have helped.
Time for some perspective. Here's results from some market share surveys that have come out over the last year or so:
Back in December, MandrakeSoft claimed the top spot as Linux-Mandrake 7.2 made the rounds. Not too much before that, Red Hat fancied itself the top distributor. Who, exactly, is it really?
The answer, of course, is that nobody really knows. The various surveys track retail sales, which is a useful number. But there is little correlation between the number of boxes sold and the number of installed systems. And the number of boxes sold appears to be highly volatile, depending on each distributor's release cycle.
Since Linux is free software, there is no way to really know how many installed systems there are. There are no licenses to buy, after all. And Linux users are, to a great extent, unlikely to cooperate with any scheme that tries to track installed systems. It's nice that you can use Linux without having to tell anybody who you are.
The above table leads to some conclusions, though. The news for Caldera, Corel, and Turbolinux, at least in the U.S., looks a little grim. Corel, especially, is in trouble, since retail sales were exactly what the company was hoping to make money on. But we knew that already. Caldera and Turbolinux have revenue models that go beyond box set sales, at least.
The big three for retail sales in the U.S. seem to be Linux-Mandrake, Red Hat, and SuSE - though SuSE's long-term staying power remains to be seen. Of those three, any can probably top the charts on any given month when they release a new version.
These charts, thus, don't really tell us who the top distributor is. Instead, they should be seen as similar to the movie box office listings. We can see who is doing the best at the moment, but the actual information content is limited. It just tells us who produced the current hit.
There is good news here, though. One thing that can be concluded is that the U.S. distribution market is still not dominated by any one company. That is important: diversity and choice are part of what makes Linux great.
What software is running inside your TV? In June, 2000, LWN disagreed (lightly) with Richard Stallman regarding this quote:
I'm less concerned with what happens with embedded systems than I am with real computers. The real reason for this is the moral issues about software freedom are much more significant for computers that users see as a computer. And so I'm not really concerned with what's running inside my microwave oven.
Our claim was that embedded systems will increasingly impact our lives, and that the freedom to decide what runs on those systems is important.
So it was interesting to encounter this note from RMS on the Politech list. Therein, he expresses concern about interactive television, as described on the Spy TV web site. Fancy interactive TV systems can do all kinds of profiling, and can engage in many types of manipulative behavior, even if they report no information back to a central system. Says RMS:
A lesson can be drawn from this which I think the site itself does not draw: that any non-free program that you allow into your life, if it is in a position to receive complex instructions from the Internet, is a potential agent to manipulate or interfere with you, and cannot be trusted.
Now, an interactive television does differ somewhat from a microwave oven in terms of its ability to "manipulate or interfere," but it is true that neither is seen, by most people, as a computer.
This is an issue that will present itself increasingly often in the coming years as computers disappear into the devices we use all day long. An awareness of the issue, and of the importance of software freedom, will be always more important. The capabilities and assumptions built into our devices are going to have a growing influence over our freedom in general.
Embedded Linux has the potential to help, since the base software is available. But embedded Linux does not require that the applications that run on it be open, or, for that matter, that there be any way to examine or modify the software running in a particular device. Hardware running embedded Linux can be just as closed as any other system. Even if Linux succeeds in domination of the embedded world, we're going to have some interesting fights on our hands.
CLIQ closes in. The Colorado Linux Info Quest is set to take place in just over a week in the plains along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. CLIQ 2001 will be held in the Denver Marriott Tech Center hotel on March 30th and includes speakers such as David L. Sifry of Linuxcare, Scott Draeker of Loki Entertainment, Rick Lehrbaum of LinuxDevices.com, Havoc Pennington of Red Hat and the GNOME Foundation, Kurt Granroth of SuSE and KDE, Bdale Garbee of Debian, David A. Desrosiers of Linuxcare, Paul Everitt of Digital Creations, author Jon Lasser, Darryl Strauss of VA Linux and the XFree86 project, and Patrick Lannigan of NuSphere. LWN.net is proud to be a 2nd year sponsor of this show. Other Sponsors and exhibitors this year include tummy.com, SGI, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Xi Graphics, and Monta Vista Software.
Note that online registration closes on Friday, March 23nd, so be sure to register early and join us at the premiere Linux event of the Rocky Mountain region.
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March 22, 2001