The current leader of the Debian GNU/Linux project, Stefano Zacchiroli (pictured below, left), posed the question with a little more force - Why the bloody hell should you care about Debian? - in a talk at the 12th Australian national Linux conference today.
Zacchiroli outlined the uniqueness of Debian - it was a non-commercial distribution that was able to compete with other commercial distros, it was built collaboratively by experts and was the first major distribution to be developed exclusively in the spirit of the GNU project.
Apart from this, Debian had two unique identifiers - its social contract (adopted in 1997) and its constitution (adopted in 1998), Zacchiroli said.
"The social contract ensures that the software is 100 percent free, that we give back every change to the upstream projects, that we don't hide problems and that our priorities are our users and free software," he said.
The constitution enables the project to be a do-ocracy where consensus and writing code count; if matters cannot be resolved at that level, then the democratic process is used. "The leader of the project and secretary provide some kind of framework for these processes to operate," he added.
Debian was started in August 1993 and 17 years later it had around 30,000 packages, had done 11 releases, had 900 developers and 120 maintainers plus thousands of other contributors. "We have 12 ports and two non-Linux ports," Zacchiroli said. "And there are something like 120 derivatives based on Debian."
Having set the framework, Zacchiroli then came to the first reason why people should care about Debian - simply because the project did things better. "Our packages are of very high quality, there is a culture of technical excellence, package design is according to a policy and packages are subjected to automated testing," he said.
Archive rebuilds were done periodically, and each maintainer was an expert in the software that he or she maintained. "There are no second class packages; all are equal," Zacchiroli said. "Our release policy is simple: we release when it's ready."
The second reason, Zacchiroli said, was freedom. "We have been promoting the culture of free software since 1993. The distribution is free from the bottom up, in software and firmware. We do not use non-free infrastructure - there are no non-free web services for users - and our developers use no non-free services either."
Thirdly, he pointed out, Debian was absolutely independent. "No (single) company babysits our operations. Yes, we do receive help from companies but there are no strings attached. We rely on donations and gifts."
Hence, he said, people trusted Debian not to take decisions based on profit.
Decision-making within the project was based on a do-ocracy, he added. "An individual can make a technical or non-technical decision with regard to their own work. If that is not possible, then we have a democratic process.
"Debian should live long and prosper because of the freedom and independence. Having only company-supported distros is bad because there may be times when their interests will clash with ours."
Zacchiroli said Debian was the root of a major derivatives ecosystem. "Derivatives are game-changers," he said. "The focus is on customisation. Most of the packages come from us and this means efficiency as far as packaging efforts go."
Debian had become the base for about 120 distributions because of its quality and licensing assurances, its solid base system, the huge package base and its suitability for customisation, Zacchiroli said.
He cited the case of the best-known Debian derivative, Ubuntu. "In Lucid Lynx (Ubuntu 10.04 released in April last year), 18 percent of the packages were Debian packages plus patches; 74 percent were from Debian, and only 7 percent were from upstream." The statistics were for the Ubuntu main and universe repositories.
"So we are a distribution pipeline," Zacchiroli said. "From upstream to the distribution to users, there is movement both ways. Our sole concern is that it should be sustainable and benefit free software as a whole."
"Free software is bigger than any distribution. The golden rules are to give back in order to reduce package flow viscosity and to give credit where credit is due."
Hence, he told his audience, "you should care. Debian offers a mix of rare features. It is the root of a huge tree of derivatives and derivatives of derivatives. And the cause of free software is best served by collaboration."