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Some Facts about openSUSE and Distrowatch Figures - A Correction
Thursday, January 11 2007 @ 06:02 AM EST

Matthew Aslett of Computer Business Review brings to my attention that a recent article by the Salt Lake Tribune's Bob Mims, "Novell underscores support for free software development", includes an inaccuracy. Because the article has been widely quoted and it is currently linked to on Novell's web site, it seems important to correct it. Mims, after an interview with Novell spokesman Kevan Barney, wrote:
"Three weeks ago Open Suse 10.2 was released for free download. It's doing very well," Barney said. "Our experience with the open-source community has been great these past few years, and we will strive to continue that." Statistics back up Novell's contention. In the past month, Open Suse supplanted Ubuntu as the No. 1 choice, according to the download access-tracking Web site. Fedora? It fell to No. 3.

Aslett correctly points out that Distrowatch doesn't track downloads; it tracks hits to its own web site:

There seems to be growing confusion about the Linux distribution popularity statistics published over at DistroWatch, with some commentators referring to them as download statistics that indicate growing adoption of openSUSE. This is not the case....DistroWatch does not track download access, it tracks the average hits per day for each of its own distribution pages.

Barney had highlighted the Distrowatch page hit figures on his blog in mid-December, using them to demonstrate popularity and alleged community support for openSUSE.

He wrote:

December 11th, 2006 by Kevan Barney

There’s an interesting trend on display at DistroWatch tracks average page hits per day for Linux distributions, and for last 30 days, openSUSE has jumped into the top spot, from its typical place in second. The popularity margin is even greater when you look at the last seven days.

When I click on the links he provided, I don't see openSUSE listed as number one. I find that Ubuntu is listed as number one, and according to that page, it has been number one in Distrowatch page hits for the last year, the last 6 months, the last 3 months, the last week, the last everything on those pages. When I set the Page Hit Ranking app to the last seven days, I see Dreamlinux is number three for the last week, just for context, so maybe there was a temporary upsurge for openSUSE, but apparently not enough to last.

Oh, and according to what I see, Fedora hasn't slipped. It was number three for all of 2006. In 2005, it was number four, so by that metric, it's actually gone up.

Barney, as you saw, correctly wrote that Distrowatch counts page hits, so I don't know how the downloads-hits confusion got started, but it is important to be accurate, and it fooled me too. I linked to an article in News Picks that repeated the wrong information, without checking the statistics. After reading Aslett's correction, I wrote to Distrowatch's Ladislav Bodnar and asked what their figures mean to them. Here is his answer:

What do the figures mean to you?

They represent the number of clicks on each distributions-specific page on DistroWatch. Nothing more and nothing less. In theory, the more popular a distro, the more clicks its page should get, but in practice this might or might not be the case, who knows. You can also look at it as an ongoing popularity poll among the visitors of DistroWatch.

I started the ranking some 5 years ago as a fun way of measuring the popularity of distributions and I thought it would remain a little fun toy, but many visitors take it far too seriously. In the past, the ranking figures made it into the various press releases by Mandriva, Ubuntu and now Novell and many other web sites draw attention to it regularly. recently called it a "distro hitparade". I'd like to believe that there is some truth in the figures, but in all honesty, they really don't mean all that much and should not be taken very seriously.

So there you are.

Distrowatch's Top Ten Distributions page, by the way, lists Mandriva as number 2, after Ubuntu, but it disclaims as follows:

The bewildering choice and the ever increasing number of Linux distributions can be confusing for those of you who are new to Linux. This is why this page was created. It lists 10 distributions (plus an honourable mention of FreeBSD, by far the most popular of all of the BSDs), which are generally considered as most widely used by Linux users around the world. There are no figures to back it up and there are many other distributions that might suit your particular purpose better, but as a general rule, all of these are popular and have very active forums or mailing lists where you can ask questions if you get stuck. MEPIS and Xandros are considered the best for new Linux users who want to get productive in Linux as soon as possible without having to master all its complexities. On the other end of the spectrum, Gentoo, Debian, Slackware and FreeBSD are more advanced distributions that require plenty of learning before they can be used effectively. Mandriva, Fedora, Ubuntu and SUSE can be classified as good "middle-road" distributions. Knoppix is a so-called live CD - it is great for trying out Linux without getting your hands dirty as it runs directly from a CD, no installation required. These distributions are loosely listed in order of popularity on DistroWatch, which is NOT an indication of their market share or quality. As always, comments and suggestions are most welcome.

I've corrected the News Picks entry I posted at the time that linked to Dana Blankenhorn's blog, which talked about downloads. I had opined that the downloads statistics were likely just people wanting to get the last clean version of openSUSE, but now that we know Distrowatch isn't even presenting download statistics, it actually means even less. For sure, what I wrote compounded the misinformation, because I accepted the downloads information as being accurate without checking. So I wanted to correct it more prominently than just in News Picks.

Hopefully, at some point, Novell will come out of denial and face the truth, that the community is really, really upset with Novell over the Microsoft patent deal. That isn't going to change, from all I see -- and because of Groklaw, I see plenty.

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