Debian's lack of emphasis on the desktop and the latest packages has led at least one writer to conclude that the distribution fails to innovate.
However, it would be more accurate to say that Debian's innovations are centered elsewhere—namely on security and administration—as its developers try to live up to its slogan of "the universal operating system."
Why else would Debian 7.0's release notes start with the announcement that the distribution now supports the s390x hardware architecture, a replacement for the s390, and armhf, a replacement for ARMv7 machines? These announcements are immediately followed by a list of the ten architectures currently supported by Debian.
Another innovation that is easy to miss is Debian's new policy of building packages with the GCC compile hardening options. While casual users are unlikely to notice the difference, this means that basic security is provided against some of the more common types of attacks.
The Debian installer has also been improved. It now supports another three languages for a total of 74. In twelve of those languages, the installer supports speech—a major accessibility feature that, so far as I am aware, is unmatched by any major distribution.
Such features belie Debian's reputation for being hard to install. True, its installer still has its rough places—notably its relative lack of information about what apt is, or what the sets of packages to install, such as File or SSH Server, might mean. However, while some users might be intimidated by the mere face of the default text installer, increasingly the Debian installer is more informative and no harder to use than other installers that achieve simplicity by offering fewer choices and explanations.
In other places, the foundation for later improvements has been laid. For instance, Debian 7 provides initial support for Systemd, which will likely replace Init in the next year or so. A backports repository has also been created for the new release, to keep it updated, as well as support for AppArmor, which can be turned on for additional support.
However, probably the most obvious and immediately important innovation is Debian 7's ability to included packages built for different architectures in the same system. Given that the adoption of 64-bit systems seems stalled indefinitely, this feature could help to make them easier to use by compensating for their deficiencies with 32-bit packages. Down the road, they could allow migration to 64-bit systems without a complete reinstall and make the support for multiple architectures easier to install.
Such features quickly discredit any idea that Debian is unable to innovate. Debian 7 simply concentrates on the big picture. If it offers few new icons on the desktop, its improvements do improve versatility, ease of use and security—none of which should be dismissed because they are not spectacular.
What is especially important about the changes in Debian 7 is that their benefits are not confined to the users of one distribution alone. As Ubuntu, Linux Mint and other Debian-based distributions borrow from Debian, their security will benefit from packages built with security-hardening flags. The Debian installer will be available for the blind or speakers of many minority languages to use.
Eventually, in true free software fashion, these and other innovations in Debian 7 will be passed along to non-Debian distributions—simply because they are good ideas.
Debian 7 is not the kind of distribution that convinces users to switch to it.
All the same, it boasts several features that should be standard in most distributions by this time next year. It may not be a revolutionary release, but that doesn't mean it doesn't promise to be an influential one in its own quiet way. Increasingly, what happens in Debian is what will be happening in other distributions in the future—regardless of how current its desktop packages happen to be.