Estimating our user base makes me want to contribute more
The 8 million figure is out of date. I first remember hearing it about a year ago. Historically, Ubuntu has been doubling in users every year, so there's a good chance the 8 million figure is far too small. The 8 million was also a conservative estimate from Canonical using someone mysterious means. It would be nice if they were open about the process - at the very least we could release a figure using the same methodology as Fedora (unique IPs poking the update server).
I'm skeptical of Fedora's claim to be ahead of Ubuntu, even if the 9.5 million users is accurate. In 2007, a Desktop Linux Survey estimated Ubuntu had a 30% marketshare while Fedora had about 6%. A google trends search shows searches for Ubuntu increasing substantially over that time, while Fedora has been decreasing. It just doesn't seem right that Fedora would quintouple in marketshare while simultaneously experiencing fewer google searches.
Now, people often only run google searches when they have problems; trends data could then be a measure of bad things. However, it's not a terrible proxy for popularity; Ubuntu is 5 times as trendy as Fedora, which fits nicely with the survey data. It's unlikely Ubuntu users would be 5 times as likely to google as Fedora users. Perhaps another desktoplinux.com survey will help settle things.
Usage Statistics are Important:
Every once in a while, I ask myself if my volunteer contributions matter. I know from popcon results that Wine is installed on about 10% of Ubuntu machines. I have hundreds of thousands of users. If I were to improve the Wine package to give the software equivalent of a stick of gum to every user (about 10 cents or so), then in real terms I've just created 80 thousand dollars in value. That's a conservative estimate: maybe there are twice as many Ubuntu users, popcon doesn't count Wubi users who are probably more likely to use Wine, and so on.
I do this for free. I've been working on Ubuntu and Wine for about 5 years now, and sometimes when I'm low on money I find myself asking if it's really worth it. I struggle with a part time job to make rent, and dedicate the equivalent of a full-time job volunteering for Ubuntu; meanwhile, my consultant friends charge 150 an hour to format/reinstall Windows.
I ask myself if it's worth it. Looking at those user stats, I have no doubt that it is. Even if I'm only making a stick of gum's worth of improvement. Sometimes it's a thankless job, but then again charity usually is.
*bad journalism: see first comment