A decade ago, Debian maintainers had the reputation of being aloof and surly, looking down on outsiders and dismissing them with sarcasm. Today, discussions on the project mailing lists can get intense, but in many ways Debian is cleaning up its act.
One reason for the change may be that lone maintainers are increasingly giving way to teams, giving project members more practice in getting along with people.
This claim matters because Ubuntu contains documentation and proprietary applications in its repositories that some users may want to install. In addition, when a project in progress bothers to release any packages, these days, it tends to do so for Ubuntu.
The fact is that, because Ubuntu borrows many of its packages from the Debian Testing or Unstable repositories, the two distributions will always have a large degree of compatibility. At the same time, Ubuntu is continuing to differentiate itself from Debian and other distributions, so the amount of compatibility is probably dropping.
So far as I know, no one tracks the amount of compatibility. But, according to a presentation given by Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli in 2011, 74 percent of Ubuntu's packages are taken directly from Debian's repositories and 18 percent are patched. (The remaining 7 percent are taken from upstream.) These figures suggest that you have approximately two chances in three that any given package is compatible. Probably, the odds are even better if a package is not part of the core system.
To a large extent, Ubuntu now enjoys the popularity that Debian had a decade ago. Innovative where Debian is concerned with stability, user-friendly where Debian has a reputation of being for experts, Ubuntu might be said to have made Debian irrelevant.
A closer look, though, shows that if Debian itself is less important than it once was, its influence is greater than ever. Besides Ubuntu itself, 147 of the 321 distributions listed on Distrowatch are based upon Debian. Add the distributions built upon Ubuntu, and 234 of today's distros — 73 percent — are derived directly or indirectly from Debian. This is an increase of 10 percent over two years ago, and it includes three of the distributions with the top five page views — Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and Debian.
Instead of becoming inconsequential, today Debian is more influential than ever before. You could say that it has become the major upstream project for the Linux desktop.
Technically and socially, Debian has many points in its favor. Its maintainer system ensures that knowledgeable people in touch with upstream projects oversee its packages, and its package testing includes rigorous standards.
Just as importantly, it is among the strongest proofs that a community-based distribution can be as successful as a commercial one. Some users might also like the fact that it offers a position on free software that is independent from the Free Software Foundation.
Yet when people are deciding whether to use Debian, all too often what influences their decisions most are the myths — the rumors that were never true or have long ceased to be true.
When you look behind the myths, today you have no reason not to consider Debian along with other distros that have a better reputation for user-friendliness. Aside from a few qualifications that I mentioned, the modern Debian deserves to be a serious contender when you go shopping for another distro.