In Defense and Praise of Debian

Should Debian be more commercial, as Ubuntu is? A look inside one of the GNU/Linux movement’s leading distributions.
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Every now and then, someone suggests that Debian GNU/Linux should be more commercial. To further this goal, some create derivative distros like Linspire, Ubuntu, or Xandros, or organizations like the stillborn DCC Alliance. Others act as pundits, whispering advice from off-stage, like Debian founder Ian Murdock, or, more recently, columnist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

However, as a long-time Debian user, I have to wonder what the discontent is about. According to the Linux Foundation's 2007 Desktop/Client Survey, Debian accounts for a healthy 26.5% of corporate clients and 21% of personal desktops. Take Ubuntu and other Debian-derivatives into account, and 90% of those participating in the survey were deploying Debian technology (although they were often using other distributions as well).

Or look at any random collection of SourceForge projects; if they bother to provide native packages at all, chances are they provide .DEBs. By any standard, Debian is the ultimate success story among distributions.

Sure, the Debian release cycle is unwieldy. Sometimes, too, the community can be so ill-mannered and punctilious than any sane person would chew off a leg to escape the pointless bickering.

But there are reasons for these traits. Debian coordinates the releases of more hardware architecture than most other distros, and its structure means that formal releases matter less than in most distros. As for the bickering, the fact that all issues are publicly discussed in the project constantly causes outsiders to misjudge their seriousness.

And so far as such concerns are legitimate. The project is revising its practices. We'll be able to judge how successful the reforms were by how closely the developers can stick to their plans to have the next release ready by September.

Imperfections aside, Debian is exactly what its manifesto proclaimed it would become. Debian is "not a commercial product and . . . it never should be," Ian Murdock wrote in 1994 (obviously, he changed his mind later).

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Rather, it was conceived as a non-commercial distribution, rather than one with "the destructive goal of enriching oneself at the expense of the entire Linux community and its future."

The truth is, few other distros can match Debian's combination of user choice and community egalitarianism. In many ways, it is the epitome of what free software is supposed to be -- a sprawling, chaotic proof that the ideals of the community work.

And I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way. I value the choice that Debian gives me as a user, as well as the non-compromising idealism of its community.

A big tent made from choice

Part of my allegiance to Debian is pure habit. I discovered free software when I worked for Stormix and Progeny, two deceased Debian-derivatives. Yet, as a free software journalist, I have reviewed dozens of distributions, and, despite being frequently impressed along the way, I stubbornly keep my main system running Debian.

Even when I decided I should broaden my horizons by installing a distribution that uses RPM packages on my laptop, the fact that I chose Fedora is no accident -- as former Debian Project Leader Martin Michlmayr remarked to me, Fedora is probably the distro community that most closely resembles Debian.

So why do I keep returning to Debian? One reason that is not a factor is its geek cred. Even before its new installer, Debian was never that hard to install. And while it is true that Ubuntu is responsible for major improvements in usability, these improvements filter quickly into other distributions, and none more quickly than Debian; it's the nature of free software to share, and the fact that many Ubuntu developers are also Debian maintainers means that, if anything, Debian gets Ubuntu's improvements quicker than other distributions.

In fact, one reason that I appreciate Debian is that it is designed for all levels of users. Where Linux from Scratch or old-style Gentoo are for hardcore geeks, and Ubuntu is aimed at new users, Debian manages to accommodate all users.

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