The Changing Face of Debian

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 17, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Like a rite of spring, the annual campaign for Debian Project Leader has begun. I've been watching these elections since 1999, and reading the platforms of the current three candidates (headlined, inevitably, as apt install dpl-install), I'm reminded about how Debian has evolved over the years.

Debian, of course, was one of the earliest Linux distributions, as well as the most ambitious. By the time I became aware of it, the founding years had passed, and the people involved were on their way to becoming legend. When I went to work with Ian Murdock, Debian's founder, at a company funded by Bruce Perens, the implementer of the Debian Social Contract, friends were frankly envious. Non-geek as I was, I had stumbled unwittingly into geek paradise.

In those days, Debian was a major power in free software. It was admired for its community focus, and feared a little for the frequent ferocity of its discussions.

Other projects might accept the Free Software Foundation's (FSF)'s rulings on which licenses were free -- but not Debian. When, for example, the GNU Free Documentation License (FDL)) was released, the Debian mailing lists discussed for weeks whether the distribution would accept it. Eventually, Debian concluded as a community that the FDL was only free if a document contained no invariant -- unchangeable -- section. It has stuck by that conclusion to this day, even though disagreeing with the FSF.

Such independence made Debian a power in free software. After the FDL discussion, even the FSF got into the habit of quietly consulting Debian on free software matters in order to guarantee a consensus. When the FSF began discussing a revision of the GNU General Public License, Debian's place at the table was uncontested. In those days, the Project Leader elections were carefully covered in the media as the major events that they were.

Enter Ubuntu
By this point, the Debian package format had fought its way to a rough equality. Development teams no longer released packages (assuming they bothered at all) entirely in .RPMs; increasingly, they released .DEBS as well.

Then something happened that no one had foreseen: an eccentric millionaire named Mark Shuttleworth began a Debian-based distribution called Ubuntu, with the goal of making Linux more user-friendly.

In retrospect, this event was as world-shaking as Bilbo's finding of the One Ring. For one thing, as Ubuntu became popular .DEB format became the dominant package format.

Just as importantly, Ubuntu upset Debian's position. Some Debian members were openly suspicious of Shuttleworth's motives and Ubuntu's goals. For others, Ubuntu was a chance to be paid for the work they did as volunteers at Debian. Once or twice, complaints were made -- possibly out of jealousy -- that Ubuntu maintainers had either forsaken Debian, or were neglecting their Debian duties.

Today, you can still start a debate about who was right in their first reactions to Ubuntu. However, by the end of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, Ubuntu had usurped Debian's position. Debian, people were saying, was difficult to install or configure, and Ubuntu had made it obsolete (never mind that Ubuntu continues to use Debian's packages).

Even Debian's supporters agreed that the venerable distribution was in decline. All the everyday business of the project continued to be done, and releases were still made with the same regularity -- or lack of it -- as in the glory days. Yet at least from the outside, the project seemed to have lost direction. With Ubuntu becoming so popular, what was the role of Debian?

Second Wind
Over several years, an answer emerged. In effect, Debian transformed itself into an upstream distribution. It began tracking the distributions based first or second hand upon itself, urging their maintainers to list derivatives on the Debian web site and exchange information. Those who used Debian natively might be a relatively small percentage compared to the past, yet the most popular distributions, like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, continued to be supplied by Debian.

Today, the figures speak for themselves. On Distrowatch, the top two distributions for page hits are based on Debian, with Debian itself a respectable third.

In addition, 130 of the distributions listed on Distrowatch are based on Debian, compared to 68 on Ubuntu. Combined, Debian and Ubuntu are the source of over two-thirds of the distributions listed. Similarly, in the 2014 LinuxQuestions Members Choice Award, Debian and its derivatives accounted for some 60% of the votes for Desktop Distribution. Just as GNOME's desktop environment has declined in popularity but GNOME applications remain the most popular, so Debian is no longer the choice of the majority, but its technology is becoming synonymous with that of Linux for two out of three users.

After a few directionless years, Debian has found a new role. If it no longer dominates, its influence is stronger than ever before, especially with Ubuntu becoming increasingly oriented towards hardware. The DPL election is no longer the internal matter it had become, but a decision that could effect the whole of free software. Watch it closely if you care about free software, and, if you vote, please remember that you are voting for those outside of Debian as well.

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