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Has Linux’s market share really doubled in two months?

Something weird just happened. Linux – the sprightly insurgent of operating systems – just saw its market share double. According to NetMarketShare, its share of the desktop jumped from around 2.5 percent in July, to nearly 5 percent in September.

That’s a significant bump, putting it within reach of MacOS, which purportedly dominates 6.29 percent of the market. But can it be believed?

Before we dive into the figures, it’s worth talking about NetMarketShare. This service is one of a handful (with rivals including StatCounter, Clicky, and W3Counter) that tries to make sense of the fractured computing landscape.

Its methodology is pretty straightforward. It looks at visitor records from literally tens of thousands of websites, recording hundreds of millions (if not billions) of page visits, in order to determine what operating system and browser people are using.

While I’m generally confident in the data NetMarketShare offers, I know it can never be 100 percent accurate. Like any polling, it’s looking at a sample, and extrapolating wider trends from it. Keep that in mind as we wrap our head around these figures.

(Incidentally, ZDNet’s Ed Bott wrote an excellent analysis of NetMarketShare’s methodology that’s well worth a read.)

When I first saw the stats, just one word came to my mind: Chromebook. The underlying operating system that runs on all Chromebooks, called ChromeOS, is based on Linux.

September is back-to-school time. Increasingly, Chromebooks are favored in education. For starters, they’re cheap as chips; you can get a solid machine for as little as $200, which is great news if you’re a cash-strapped school district.

In fact, the laptop I’m writing this on is an Acer Chromebook 14, which replaced my (vastly more expensive) Dell XPS 13. I couldn’t be happier. Chromebooks are amazing value for money.

ChromeOS is also easy to manage for techies. It’s locked down tighter than Fort Knox, and by virtue of its design, it takes away many of the administrative headaches that come with Windows. IT staffers don’t have to worry about deploying large updates across the campus, or teens accidentally downloading ransomware. It just works.

Can we explain the increase of Linux users with a surge in ChromeOS use, coinciding with the start of the school year? Maybe.

But then again, maybe not. I looked at the stats from the same period in 2015 and 2016, and I saw no similar spike. In fact, Linux desktop usage pretty much plateaued then.

Moving on, I’d like to believe that Linux has organically doubled in the last month, but that just doesn’t feel realistic. While Linux distributions tend to target a mainstream audience (think Ubuntu and Fedora), they’ve largely failed to capture that.

Linux users tend to be power-users; developers, for example, or those that want the flexibility that Linux offers. People who just want a computer for gaming and browsing tend to stay away.

Enthusiasts have optimistically banged on about “the year of the Linux Desktop” for eons, to the point where it’s now a tiresome cliche. As much as I’d like it to be the case, I just can’t imagine that happening now, in 2017.

So, what will it be? An unprecedented spike in ChromeOS users? This seems to be the prevailing theory on the Linux-redditsphere. One user, SmeggySmegg, mentioned his school district owns 800 Chromebooks that are used daily. If you assume Chromebooks are reaching ubiquity across the education space, it could go some way to explain this jump.

There’s also the possibility that millions have suddenly converted to the ways of Richard Stallman (I mean, he does look a bit like Jesus). I came across a thread on /r/LinuxMasterRace that was filled with anecdotes about non-techies joining the Linux fold. One user, Kangalioo, mentioned he installed Linux Mint on his grandfather’s computer. Another user, Jackojc, claims to have installed Linux on 10 people’s computers over the past three months.

I’m not going to put much stock into this though. Anecdotes aren’t data.

Perhaps we are just talking about some screwy data from NetMarketShare? Who knows. Let me know your theory in the comments below.