Happy Birthday, Debian!

Yesterday, August 16th, was the 15-year anniversary of the first release of the Debian Linux distribution. This makes Debian, along with Slackware, one of the oldest Linux distros still being actively developed.

The name Debian is a portmanteau of project-founder Ian Murdock’s name with his then-girlfriend’s (now ex-wife’s) name, Debra. The lesson: don’t use girlfriends’ names for tattoos or software projects. Debian is famous for taking the concept of free software incredibly seriously. They even re-branded the Firefox browser as “Iceweasel”, because the name “Firefox” and attendant logos are trademarked by the Mozilla Corporation and the Debian project felt the terms of their use were incompatible with their policies on free software.

Debian is important for historical reasons, but also because it serves a base for numerous other popular distributions such as Ubuntu, Xandros (which is the default OS on the popular eee PC) and KNOPPIX.

While there are many people who do run Debian as their primary OS, I’ve always thought that it was in this aspect that Debian truly excelled–as a large pool of stable software for other distro developers to draw upon. The Debian project is nothing if not ambitious: it includes over 18,000 software packages and supports eleven different hardware architectures, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. You can run Debian on everything from the ARM chip which likely powers your cell phone, to giant IBM mainframes (your desktop computer is most likely an x86 architecture).

But trying to do so much inevitably leads to shortcomings. Debian has been famously plagued by slow release cycles, almost 3 years passed between woody and sarge (all Debian releases are named for Toy Story characters). As a desktop OS, Debian lacks the polish of desktop-focused distros like Ubuntu or SuSE. Debian has been accused of lacking focus, with resulting conflict and controversy between different developer communities.

But for the most part, Debian does a fantastic job of providing quality code, and it’s even more to the developers’ credit since they labor in relative obscurity on a massive workhorse project, not on the latest flashy project at the top of the DistroWatch list. And hey, any distribution that comes with its own manifesto is alright by me (I’ve always wanted to write a manifesto!).

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