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In Defense and Praise of Debian
What's the Fuss About?
February 11, 2008
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).
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.