The most ubiquitous software on the planet

Software is an interesting kind of product. The most complex artifacts that humankind has ever made are items of software. Mechanical machines do not even come close. The most complex machine ever made, with about a million moving parts, was the Space Shuttle orbiter. The “moving parts” of software are bits of data; a program that includes a billion bits is not uncommon.

This complexity means that software development is eye-wateringly expensive. On the other hand, compared with other manufactured goods, the manufacturing, warehousing and distribution of software [and other electronic IP] is very cheap – maybe even free. This leads to some interesting results in the marketplace …

The success of conventional products is often measured in the number of units shipped. A good example is cars, which are commonly cited as a metric for the state of the economy. Although the monetary value is important, the number of units also counts. With software products, the unit count seems to be even more important. This is very apparent when you consider freeware, shareware and open source software, where copying is actively encouraged. The disruptive effect of the low manufacturing/reproduction cost leads some people to very odd conclusions, like an assertion that all software should be free. This is plainly ridiculous, as the development needs to be paid for somehow [and, anyway, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”]. But I digress …

If the most successful software is that which is in widest use – i.e. has the most instances in existence – it should be quite easy to identify. So, what is it?

I guess it is easy to start narrowing down the field. The Most Ubiquitous Software [MUS] is very unlikely to be an application program. Although a widely used product, which is available over multiple platforms, is a possible contender. I guess Microsoft Word must be in the running.

System software is rather more likely. Certainly if you asked the mythical “man in the street”, you would probably get the answer Windows. Certainly Windows has been going for a long time and has been very strong over the last 20 years. A good estimate seems to suggest that there are around 2 billion instances. Not bad! Other operating systems should be considered. Android recently topped the billion. This means that Linux is probably comparable to Windows, given that, though it is less common on desktop computers, it is widely used in servers and in many embedded systems.

Thinking of embedded software changes the perspective. There are many more instances of embedded software than anything on the desktop, simply because we are surrounded by embedded systems in every aspect of our lives. Again, it would seem logical to consider system software when looking for the MUS. Although Linux is popular for many systems, real time operating systems [RTOSes] have been deployed since the 1980s. There are around 200 RTOS products on the market, but a handful stand out as being clearly the most popular – some have a long pedigree. Counting instances of an RTOS is not too hard if it is sold on a per unit royalty basis; just count the number of licenses sold. However, very large volume users are likely to utilize a royalty free product, like Mentor Embedded’s Nucleus RTOS. In such a case, the counting is harder, but some careful market research may provide a reasonable estimate.


This market research was done for Nucleus a short while ago. The number is out of date, as it has grown in the meantime. The number is 3 billion instances. This figure is not too surprising, as Nucleus has been deployed in a wide variety of products; instances of it [though totally invisible, of course] can be found in most homes, very many hospitals, vehicles and factories. It is a mature product, having been shipping in one form or another for a couple of decades, but it has not stood still. Nucleus today embraces multicore designs [both SMP and AMP configurations] and power management and a lightweight process model is also an option.

Even if someone can suggest an alternative contender for MUS, I think that 3 billion is an impressive number. I have a feeling that, with the explosion of IoT, getting to 4 billion is not going to take too long …

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