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Confused BBC tech chief: Only 600 Linux users visit our website

'Umm... or it could be 97,600'

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The BBC's technology boss Ashley Highfield has provoked consternation in the UK's open source community by claiming that only a few hundred of the corporation's 17.1 million website visitors use Linux.

In an interview with web design mag .net, Highfield hit back against claims the BBC is too cosy with Microsoft. He said: "We have 17.1 million users of bbc.co.uk in the UK and, as far as our server logs can make out, 5 per cent of those [use Macs] and around 400 to 600 are Linux users."

A study of BBC server logs in 2005 showed that 0.41 per cent of visitors to the BBC homepage were running Linux. Assuming the BBC's traffic hasn't gone up by orders of magnitude since then, that would mean more than 70,000 visitors are running the open source OS.

Although many Linux users adjust their browser user agent string, which identifies the operating system in server logs, Highfield's maximum figure of 600 seems bizarre. A Facebook group (membership required) and an online petition have been started by open sourcers in an attempt to debunk the claim.

Mark Taylor, president of Linux lobby the Open Source Consortium (OSC), poured scorn on the numbers. He said: "It's absolutely inconceivable that there are only 600 Linux users in the UK that visit the BBC website. This misinformation from the national broadcaster demands an explanation."

We asked the Beeb this morning if it would like to clarify Highfield's claims on bbc.co.uk's traffic or has any further comment to make. They came back with news that Highfield has just posted a response on his blog.

He writes:

The BBC use a range of systems to calculate user levels and the reporting system used to provide the numbers I quoted gave the lowest number (this is the system we use the most widely, and I've asked for a thorough check to see if it is correctly picking up all Linux users).

Alternative analysis that we have run off which performs the measurement in different ways suggests that the potential number of Linux users could range from 0.3 per cent to 0.8 per cent (which, from a total UK bbc.co.uk userbase of 12.2m weekly users [source: TNS] could imply a user base between 36,600 and 97,600).

Ooops. Highfield goes on to say that these users should be seen in the context of the vast majority, who run Windows.

Relations between the BBC and the UK open source community have been strained by the controversy over the iPlayer, the national broadcaster's Windows-only download service. Free software activists protested outside Television Centre in August. Highfield told .net: "The 12 people who demonstrated outside our offices have every right to demonstrate, but I think 'the 12 people' says it all."

His comments are part of a recent PR offensive of interviews with sympathetic technology publications.

In an announcement unquestioningly parroted by much of the national press, the BBC also recently spun a multi-platform Flash-based streaming service as equivalent to the download iPlayer.

In his public statements, however, Highfield pointedly denied being "in bed with Beelzebub" over Microsoft DRM, and has offered to engage with open source advocates. The OSC replied: "We welcome this. It is certainly not too late and goes a long way to correcting any potential 'fault in communication' you take full responsibility for.

"We respectfully request that we keep the discussion grounded on the merits of the case, and avoid 'not in love with the anti-christ' comments that credit neither of us." ®

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