the current size of and growth rate of an open source project's user base is notoriously hard to measure. we can't rely on sales because the software is freely available with many independent distribution channels. in the desktop space, many products allow one to pick the desktop installed post-purchase anyways. our software doesn't phone home(though that would make for a nice slashdot article;) and participation levels on user forums gives us only general guidance that we are growing without actually revealing any numbers ... web stats are not specific enough for us (the browser often belies the desktop), but even if they were they are often skewed by usage patterns that vary between different user segments. to complicate it further, many kde systems are simply not on the internet at all. some have used cd handouts to imply user base numbers with, but that's an amazingly shakey (some might say meaningless) bridge to errect.
but there are some tantalizing hints as to the extent of our user base growth rate out there. everywhere i go it seems i run into kde users: from the streets of paris to print shops i patronize to cocktail party goers to random business people i meet in assorted american cities to users in small towns in norway. it happens so often it no longer really surprises me. this certainly wasn't the case when i first got involved with kde. interestingly, though, i have yet to see a single linux laptop on an airplane besides my own or those belonging to people going to linux conferences. the implication of that is interesting. but my experience is simply anecdotal and hard data would be nice.
which brings me to the numbers in a recent article in brazil's "easy linux" magazine titled "linux para todos" which covered a brazillian national program to make inexpensive computers running free software available to the public. they all happen to ship with kde running on linux distributions (5 different ones if i recall correctly).
the article notes that 200,000 of these machines have been sold in the 12 months spanning from april '05 to april '06. of course, not all of those systems remain kde desktops. one survey i've learned of has found that approximately 80% of those who bought one of these computers ends up installing microsoft windows on it when they get it home. this is not surprising as most people only know windows. i'm happy the retention rate is as high as 20%, to be honest, since the majority of those people are almost certainly trying something new for the first time and that's always the harder path to take.
20% leaves us with 40,000 users. that's over a 100 new kde systems per day due to just one program in one country. how many of those represent new kde users is harder to pin down, but it would be interesting if we could get some data stating that the majority of people who use those systems are new kde users. it's also probably safe to say that many if not most of those systems are used by more than one person.
then there is red flag linux in china. according to this interview with the red flag people they ship over one million copies a year, use kde for their desktop (and do a fair amount of custom kde development to that end) and currently hold 80% of the chinese linux desktop market. given the growing importance of the chinese market, these are pretty important numbers.
of course, of those one million units shipped most are almost certainly for servers assuming the linux usage patterns are similar in china as they are in the rest of the world. it's still nice to know that if a gui is brought up on those servers that it is kde, but how many "traditional" desktop users might there be in that one million units? they didn't say in the interview and i haven't yet asked, so i'll just do some wag'ing (wild-assed guessing) and say that 95% of those shipments are for servers. it could be higher or lower, but let's go with 5% as a number. that gives us 50,000 desktop units or nearly 137 new users per day.
we end up with some 240 new installations each and every day due to two projects in two countries. i'll wager that many of those reading this had not heard of one or even both of these projects before. how many other similar projects are out there, large and small, pushing kde out into the market place all around the world? if those 240 installations a day represent 5% (which i think is probably generous) of our user base growth rate that would give us 1.75 million new desktop (not server) installations per year. i wouldn't fall off my chair if the number was even higher.
the best news is that there is simply no way that 5 years ago we were seeing this kind of growth. which means adoption is accelerating. this implies that if we keep on track even better numbers await.