Alternatively, perhaps Michlmayr is correct in calling Debian and Ubuntu "complementary." Those who share Debian's non-commercial values will continue to be attracted to it, while those who prefer the latest releases and an emphasis on user-friendliness will be more likely to gravitate towards Ubuntu.
Yet even Debian's reputation as the freest of free distributions is also endangered today by the rise of distributions like GNewSense (another Debian derivative) and Blag. A major rationale for both these newer distributions is that they have removed the proprietary blobs used by some kernel drivers, and are therefore truly free in a way that Debian, Ubuntu, and most other major distributions are not.
To keep its reputation, Debian may very well have to deal with these proprietary blobs itself -- perhaps by moving them to the non-free repository, where users must make a deliberate effort to install them. But, true to its past form, Debian seems in no hurry to reach a decision.
"I'm not convinced that being the freest in town is necessarily a good goal on its own," Michlmayr says. "You always have to find a good balance between your philosophy and the practicality of it. Whenever we discuss freedom, someone always asks how the fourth point of our Social Contract -- 'our priorities are our users and free software' -- is to be interpreted. Debian certainly aims to be 100% free, but the Debian and free software communities need much more discussion about what freedom mean when it comes to images and sound files, documentation, certain binary data and other forms of information. In this sense, GNewSense is very valuable because it creates more awareness of the problem."
Such challenges have already had their effect on Debian. "It's probably fair to say that Debian's direct growth has slowed a little over the last few years," McIntyre admits. "[But] we still have a steady stream of new developers joining the project, and, as we continue growing and picking up ever-larger numbers of packages, we're naturally forming teams to maintain these new packages."
If these varied opinions mean anything, they seem to indicate that Debian's role is changing, but will continue to be an influential one. Summarizing his experiences in meeting new users and developers at DebCon, the annual Debian conference, McIntyre expresses an optimism that seems common to many of those involved in the project when he says, "Talking to some of these new folks, I can see that there's likely to be more than enough life in the project to take us through another 15 years. I wouldn't miss it for the world."