The latest Debian Project News recently announced a code freeze in preparation for a new release by the end of 2010. It's a sign of the times that the news went mostly unreported. Which makes me wonder: What is Debian's role today?
There's no doubt that, in most people's minds, Debian no longer occupies the place it once had in free and open source software (FOSS). Five or six years ago, upcoming Debian releases, or elections for Debian Project Leader were major news in the community (I know, because I covered them). Now, few of the news sites gives much attention to either event.
Partly, this change is due to shifting priorities. The emphasis in FOSS today is on usability, and Debian remains burdened with a reputation of being hard to install and use. Under these circumstances, Debian seems to be yesterday's distribution -- good for its day, but superseded by others, especially the desktop-focused Ubuntu, its own child.
However, this view is at least partly an illusion. To start with, Debian has had a very workable installer for several years now. In fact, it is the basis for the Ubuntu alternative installer, the one you use when you are having hardware problems or want more input into installation. You can customize just about every aspect of the installation, or, if you choose, go with the defaults, allowing you to control the degree of customization in the installation more thoroughly than just about any other installer.
For another thing, while some distributions are more concerned than others about ease of use, today what increasingly determines that factor is not distributions themselves so much as the desktop that is in use. Using GNOME or KDE on Debian is not so different than using GNOME or KDE on Ubuntu, despite Ubuntu's recent usability efforts.
If Debian is failing, then any other distribution might wish to succeed as well as Debian in its decline. The latest figures show that Debian has 1410 developers, about two-thirds of which (873) are active. If you assume three community developers for each of the approximately 300 developers at Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, then even today, Debian still compares favorably with Ubuntu. It probably helps that many of those who develop for Ubuntu also have roles in Debian.
Another sign of Debian's continue importance is the sheer number of distributions that are based upon it. (http://www.debian.org/misc/children-distros). The Debian site currently lists 23 active distributions that are directly based on it, including Damn Small Linux, KNOPPIX, Mepis, Xandros, and Ubuntu itself, which has spawned its own child distros, such as Mint.
At a conservative estimate, nearly 60% of current distributions must be based directly or indirectly on Debian -- and most of them depend on Debian's reputation for stability. If this is failure, it looks surprisingly like success.
Still, the question remains: Why use Debian itself today? The answers have changed so little that trotting them out again seems be redundant, but they are either technical or social and philosophical.
On the technical side, Debian's main advantage is stability. In the past, Debian has had some long intervals between releases, and the content of its Stable repositories have sometimes become sadly out of date as a result. In the last few years, Debian has tried with limited success to improve this record, but, as a distribution that is strictly non-commercial and remains untied to any corporation, Debian has few temptations to push a release out the door before it is ready. This seems to me one of the unarguable advantages that a community distribution has; it can concern itself with quality rather than arbitrary concerns like timeliness.
At any rate, because of Debian's three repository system, official releases matter much less than they do in other distributions. Under this system, you can balance stability and current software the way that you choose. If your priority is stability, then install from the Stable repository and make use of its regular security updates. If you want the latest software, then install from Unstable, and risk the occasional system problem. If you want a balance, then use Testing. These terms are relative (it says a lot that Ubuntu releases are generally based on Unstable, and its periodic Long Term Support releases on Testing), but they allow you to set up exactly the kind of system that you want. In practice, most home users seem to mix the three repositories, with only those for whom stability is an absolute priority -- such as network administrators -- opting for the security of the Stable repository.
Debian also has its attractions on the social and philosophical side. What other distribution has its own constitution, or elects officials according to an arcane -- and strictly fair system of vote counting? Or elects a leader who can influence, but not command?
Even more importantly, Debian is biased towards free software, but leaves the choice up to you. By default, the package sources point only towards free software. But, if you know about the option, you can enable sources for software that is free but depends on non-free, or for proprietary software.
This is a view of free software that you will not find at the Free Software Foundation, but it is one that I respect all the same. Personally, I enable only the sources for completely free software, but I appreciate that Debian gives me a choice, even though it does not present the choices equally.
Debian is not perfect. I, for one, would appreciate it offering a Linux kernel without proprietary firmware blobs. It wouldn't have to stop carrying kernels with the blobs -- just give a choice, as it does in everything else, to cover the complete range of options. [Update --Apparently, Debian now does allow you to run a completely free kernel. It does so by putting the proprietary blobs into a separate package. This solution strikes me as a typically Debian solution: offering you freedom, but leaving the choice up to you].]
But, in general, the reasons for using Debian remain as strong today as they were a decade ago. If Debian is less well-regarded than it once was, the main reason is not that its advantages and attitudes are in anyway obsolete or irrelevant.
I suspect that the main reason for the change in attitude is that attention in FOSS is shifting increasingly towards the commercialization of the software. A project like Debian that sticks to the old values of the community, emphasizing quality over punctuality and user control over commercial slickness is simply not one that is going to get much notice today.
However, in the face of the prevailing attitudes, these values are worth celebrating and preserving. That is why, despite a reservation or two, I remain a Debian user and -- despite the virtual copy of Ubuntu permanently installed on my system -- that I feel no need to switch permanently to any other distro.
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