Open Source catches download stats fever
Big figures, but what do they mean?
Comment You may remember that at the height of the dotcom boom, various dotcom start-ups were claiming large volumes of website visitors (eyeballs), and the figures they gave, which were probably accurate at least within reason, supported ridiculous stock prices – until it eventually became clear that, eyeballs or no eyeballs, these companies weren't selling much. Then, all of a sudden, the apparently forgotten link between revenues and commercial viability was re-discovered and sanity returned.
There is now another phenomenon of this kind emerging that maybe ought to be strangled at birth, or at least regulated, before it grows into a similar kind of beast. I am now being repeatedly informed of Open Source products which are clearly destined for success because they have achieved "x million downloads".
Clearly, a downloader is no more a user than an eyeballer is a buyer. In the dotcom era the "eyeball statistics" were at least likely to be genuine because they were being reported to the market (as a substitute for reporting real revenues) and there was also a tenuous link in that eyeballs really did mean business for some of the dotcom wunderkind (Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo, Google, etc.).
The download statistics may also be a useful indicator in respect of some Open Source products. For example, Mozilla Firefox is now reporting having provided 25m downloads – a quarter of a million per day. I doubt if that translates exactly into 25m current users, but it is probably close to the mark. Some will try it and revert to IE (or their chosen alternative) for one reason or another. However some will also try it, use it and deploy it to multiple PCs from a single download. The download figure here almost certainly indicates a very high level of take-up but gives no accurate guide of the real level of usage.
However, I have also heard download figures that I simply don't believe - for example, an obscure Open Source database claiming millions of downloads. Open Source operations and commercial companies masquerading as Open Source operations are under no obligations to have their download figures vetted or even to state how they arrived at them. Some will certainly be motivated by whatever means are available to create the impression that take-up is massive - i.e. some will tell complete lies.
At the moment, SourceForge.net (a good source of reliable information in my experience) reports its registration of over 95,000 Open Source projects. Think what this means. In almost all areas of software development now there will be multiple Open Source projects with identical or strongly related goals. There are, for example, over 300 open source database projects. There is not going to be 300 successful Open Source database products. It won't happen.
In any event, download figures should come with a health warning and should also be provided with some proof of reliability - and a disclaimer. Otherwise it will be eyeballs all over again.