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Ubuntu.com claims that there are 40 million Ubuntu users:

Ubuntu now has over 40 million desktop users and counting.

40 million seems quite low, so I'm wondering how accurate this number is.

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    Related: This old post on Ask Ubuntu had asked "How many Ubuntu users are there worldwide?", which doesn't seem to have any conclusive answer to this date. Probably can never be counted "accurately". – clearkimura Jan 31 '16 at 10:57
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    The actual claim here is "over 40 million" so if you think it is more than that it would still be accurate. The way they state it probably reflects the difficulty of measuring exactly. – user11522 Jan 31 '16 at 12:16
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    The estimates floating around are not very precise (that's the nature of estimates) but the Linux market share on desktop computers is often assumed in the range 1-2% and I've seen estimated Ubuntu market shares (dekstop) in the range 25-60%. Furthermore estimating the worldwide number of desktop computer users to be somewhere around 1.5 to 2 billion, a conservative estimate of the number of Ubuntu desktop users would be 37.5 million and quite close to the number from Ubuntu themselves. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 31 '16 at 16:30
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    I am one person. As a sysadmin I'm responsible for maintaining about two dozen servers that run debian. Do I count as one user or as 25? – Shadur Jan 31 '16 at 23:18
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    @Shadur You don't count at all. The claim is about desktop users and not server administrators. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Feb 1 '16 at 16:55
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TL;DR It is unclear if the estimate of 40 million users is accurate. It is consistent with plausible growth in estimates over the years.

Estimations

The 40 million figure was reached by estimation. In 2010, a Canonical representative explicitly mentioned that the figures are always estimated [1].

"We have no phone home or registration process, so it's always a guesstimate [...]," Chris Kenyon, vice president for OEM at Canonical, told InternetNews.com

You may like to compare the Canonical-estimated 40 million figure with a competing estimated of 80 million [2]. While each is claimed to be correct, the methodology for both figures are not established properly, so the results are questionable.

When a figure is estimated based on uncertain indicators and the actual figure is impossible to be calculated [3], the accuracy is unknown. All we can do is to review the reported figure over the past years and justify whether the 40 million figure is plausible or not.

Reported figures by year

The following are number of Ubuntu users or Ubuntu preinstalled computers that have been reported on various websites. The figures are sorted in ascending order, from oldest year at top.

  • 2007: Canonical: 6-12 million users (prior to 7.10 release) [4]
  • 2008: Canonical: 8 million users (prior to 8.10 release) [5]
  • 2009: Unknown source: 10 million users [6]
  • 2009: Unknown source: 13 million users [7]
  • 2010: Canonical: 12 million users (prior to 10.04 release) [1]
  • 2012: Canonical: 20 million new PCs were expected to be shipped [8]
  • 2013: Canonical: 18 million PCs were expected to be preinstalled (5% of global PC shipping) [9]
  • 2014: Canonical: ~20-30 million desktop users (prior to 14.10 release, 90% of Linux market) [10][11][12]
  • 2015: Over 25 million desktop users [14] (with other related estimates at [13])
  • 2016: No figures for desktop users [15]

Aside from the blank period in 2011, Canonical had been giving estimated figures for every year since 2007. The figure had increased gradually from 6 million users to 12 million users, then finally reaches over 40 million users in 2015.

To this date, in 2016, the published infographic on Ubuntu website had no figures for desktop users and only summarized into text [15].

[...] Hundreds of millions of PCs, servers, devices, virtual machines, and containers have booted Ubuntu to date!

The figure discrepancy

In the reported figures by year, notice that the word usage differs between some years. It was "users" between 2007-2010, "PCs" between 2012-2013 and "desktop users" between 2014-2015.

Following this no-coincidence word usage, the recent figures are most likely estimated based on the PC sales, which are marketed by Canonical and its business partners since 2011 [16][17][18].

[...] Canonical and Dell announced the start of an exciting retail program to sell machines pre-loaded with Ubuntu, initially rolling out to 220 retail stores in China. [16]

[...] As of this week, Ubuntu is now on sale in over 100 retail outlets in Portugal. [17]

[...] Kenyon cited the German insurance company LVM Insurance, who have Ubuntu deployed on over 10,000 desktops; Consultancy firm CapGemini who are rolling Ubuntu out on 10,000 desktop in the next 2 years; Google, who have 10,000 Ubuntu-based desktops and laptops in use; and the Ministry of Defence in The Netherlands, who are using an Ubuntu-based client across a staggering 40,000 desktops. [18]

However, the recent figures also suffers some inaccuracies. One of the reasons is, even the computers were preinstalled with Ubuntu operating system, it is not known whether the users are indeed using Ubuntu after purchasing the computers [19].

[...] Kenyon didn't comment on what percentage of these Ubuntu-loaded PC sales still have users where they run Ubuntu, or namely the actual Ubuntu user count globally. The OEM/ODM count also obviously doesn't count those that install Ubuntu manually or obtain Ubuntu installations via other means. [...] a "significant percentage" of these Linux pre-loaded systems usually get wiped by their customers and replaced with pirated copies of Windows -- especially in the Asian markets, where customers are just going after the Linux PCs due to the lower sales cost.

The phenomenon of pirated copies replacing the Linux computers had been mentioned in the discussion thread on reddit [20]. One of the relevant comments has been quoted from a user, maximinus-thrax, as below.

Whilst I personally have not seen these Ubuntu computers in any stores near me (I live in Harbin, NE china), I don't doubt that that they are available somewhere. However, I would be absolutely 100% certain that as soon as they are sold, a pirate version of windows is placed on them. The whole Chinese marketplace and software world is all about the mighty Microsoft.

Verdict

I don't have good figures to obtain the accurate number of desktop users, regardless of Ubuntu or whatever Linux distribution. Based on the reported number of users by Canonical over the years, the "40 million desktop users" is a plausible claim. Then again, not all of the users of desktops with pre-installed Ubuntu stuck with it.

To this answered date, the quoted text that is found in the infographic has already hinted that figures might have been inaccurate for desktop users. These days, Ubuntu are also running on the phones, on the tablets, in the cloud and the containers. So they started counting Ubuntu on those instead.

References

[1] Ubuntu Claims 12 Million Users as Lucid Linux Desktop Nears on Linux Planet, by Sean Michael Kerner, Apr 7, 2010.

[2] This answer by Tim for "What is the most accurate estimate for the current number of Ubuntu Desktop users?" on AskUbuntu, answered Jan 30.

[3] This answer by xubuntix for "How many Ubuntu users are there worldwide?" on AskUbuntu, answered Nov 18 '11.

[4] Ubuntu Linux: 6 Million to 12 Million Users on The VAR Guy, by The VAR Guy, Jul 22, 2007.

[5] Ubuntu Linux: 8 Million Users and Growing, by Sean Michael Kerner, Oct 27, 2008.

[6] A Software Populist Who Doesn’t Do Windows on The New York Times, by ASHLEE VANCE, Jan 10, 2009.

[7] Ubuntu a minor player? Not outside the States on ZDNet, by Christopher Dawson for ZDNet Education, Jun 17, 2009.

[8] This Wild Visionary Wants To Turn His Linux Company Into The Next Apple on Business Insider, Julie Bort, Apr 6, 2012.

[9] Canonical expects Ubuntu to be pre-installed on 18 million PCs in 2013 on The Inquirer, by Lawrence Latif, Tue May 08 2012.

[10] Ubuntu Insights' snapshot on 15 Jul 2014 via Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

[11] Ten years of Ubuntu: How Linux’s beloved newcomer became its criticized king (See page 2) on Ars Technica, by Scott Gilbertson, Oct 23, 2014.

[12] Ubuntu 14.10 desktop: security for global users on Ubuntu Insights, by Canonical, 23 Oct 2014.

[13] Ubuntu Insights' snapshot on 18 Jun 2015 via Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

[14] Tendering with Ubuntu on Ubuntu Insights, by Canonical, 17 Apr 2015.

[15] How many people use Ubuntu? on Ubuntu Insights, by Alexia Emmanoulopoulou, 7 Apr 2016.

[16] Ubuntu launches at retail in Portugal with ASUS on Canonical Blog, John Bernard, 18 Nov 2011.

[17] Retail Stores in China on Canonical Blog, Mark Murphy, 27 Oct 2011.

[18] Ubuntu PC Sales Skyrocket in 2011 on OMG! Ubuntu!, by Joey-Elijah Sneddon, Nov 2, 2012.

[19] Canonical: Ubuntu To Soon Ship On 5% Of PCs on Phoronix, by Michael Larabel, 7 May 2012.

[20] Ubuntu PC Sales Skyrocket in 2011 - higher than Apple's in 2007 on reddit, Nov 3 2012.

Disclaimer

I had actually skipped few references (one, two, three, four, five) that cited controversies over the estimation of market share for Linux, which also includes Ubuntu.

  • There are no figures for 2016 because Ubuntu 16.04 is not released for 2 weeks. – Tim Apr 8 '16 at 16:46
  • What do you mean by "no accuracy at all"? I have no idea where you live, but I estimate the nearest airport is about 30+/-15 minutes away. I can't verify my estimate is correct for you, but that doesn't mean I have zero accuracy; it's probably a good estimate. – Oddthinking Apr 8 '16 at 16:49
  • @Tim I believe 16.04 release is not a concern. See the past years trend? Canonical reported the figures for existing installations, prior to the release for that year. – clearkimura Apr 8 '16 at 16:51
  • @Oddthinking From Google definition of accuracy: technical; the degree to which the result of a measurement, calculation, or specification conforms to the correct value or a standard. – clearkimura Apr 8 '16 at 16:53
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    Okay. So, perhaps "unknown accuracy" is better than "zero accuracy". We also need to fix this inconsistency: "Even it was accurate, it is still inaccurate anyway." – Oddthinking Apr 8 '16 at 17:15

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