Debian 7: The New Upstream

Just because the new Debian release isn't focused on the desktop doesn't mean it won't be influential.
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New Debian releases sometimes seem like ice ages—you hardly expect to see more than one in your lifetime. Debian has never been constrained by a release schedule, and the recently-released Debian 7.0 (codenamed "Wheezy") comes twenty-seven months after the previous one—a lapse of millennia in development terms, much to the dismay of Debian-based distros.

However, Debian releases have always been good at demonstrating the project's priorities, and Debian 7.0 is no exception.

Like earlier releases, the latest Debian attempts to appeal to a variety of users. However, unlike Ubuntu, Linux Mint or Fedora, Debian 7.0 gives little special attention to desktop users, tending to focus more on configuration and administration. Wheezy shows Debian settling into its post-Ubuntu role of upstream supplier to Debian-based distros, providing an all-purpose distro and leaving the specialization to others.

The De-Emphasized Desktop

Debian's sense of priority is very clear from the outset. After all, what other distribution these days defaults to the text-based installer and not the graphical one?

Similarly, where desktop distros sport air-brushed wallpaper or gradients based on carefully chosen colors, Debian 7.0 defaults to a minimalistic, monochromatic black and white. This default may reduce perceptual problems for the color-blind, but it is hardly a choice designed for mass appeal. The most you can say is that users will take it more seriously than the cartoon spaceships of the previous release.

As for the list of major packages in the release announcement, Debian 7.0's kernel and versions of GNOME and KDE are all twelve months older or more. Iceweasel, Debian's version of Firefox, is at version 10, while Mozilla is about to release version 21. The kernel is 3.02, while the kernel project has just announced 3.9. The closest you get to current is GIMP 2.8.2, only a couple of point releases from the 2.8.4 release available directly from the project.

Debian 7.0 does have a new help system. Otherwise, though, all the other features mentioned as new are ones that originated elsewhere, such as the Sushi previewer for GNOME or improved codec support for multimedia due to licensing changes.

None of which is to say that Debian doesn't have an active desktop community. Even the digest of its users' mailing list, which is supposed to cut down on email traffic, can arrive seven or eight times a day.

However, the point is, Debian is unconcerned about attracting new users, especially compared to other major distros. Given its age and reputation, it hardly needs to be. People dissatisfied with other distributions are already checking it out.

The unstated reasoning seems to be that, if a Debian-based distribution doesn't satisfy you, then consider going directly to the original. A search on Google gives 2.8 million results for "Debian vs. Ubuntu," and 672,000 for Debian vs. Mint.

Comparisons with non-Debian-based distros are almost as popular, with 1.47 million results for Debian vs. Fedora, and 676,000 for Debian vs. Mageia. Debian, you might say, is the distribution that others are most frequently measured against.

At any rate, although Debian developers celebrate their releases with as much enthusiasm as developers elsewhere, releases mean less to many Debian users than they do to the users of most major distributions.

Unless Debian users are setting up a server and staying with Debian Stable for the sake of security and reliability, most use the project's repositories of Stable, Testing, and Unstable as a form of rolling releases. By the time a package reaches the stable repository, many users have long ago installed it from Debian Testing, if not from Unstable.

Unlike the official releases of other distributions, Debian Stable rarely offers much that users are not already using. Consequently, desktop users have rarely been the target of Debian's official releases.

Users tend to use the command apt-get dist-upgrade to ensure that no corner of their system has been overlooked, but they are unlikely to be enticed by anything that an official release offers. If a Debian user wants a new wallpaper, they are generally capable of providing it for themselves.


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Tags: open source, Linux, operating system, Debian, desktop


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