Debian: We're not looking for commercial fortune

Summary:Steve McIntyre, newly elected project leader for the Debian GNU/Linux operating system, talks about why the project is not planning to ape the commercial approach taken by Red Hat and Novell/Suse of the most stable systems available, but more and more exciting applications are being created as more users and developers turn to free software on the desktop.

If we look at the two leading Linux distributors that are out there, Red Hat and Suse occupy the top slots and have received considerable financial backing from vendors such as IBM, HP, Dell and others to cement those positions. Is Debian looking to become more commercially focused, and will this help to overcome some of the development inertia that appears to be afflicting the project?
Firstly, I disagree with your suggestion that we have development inertia. We have more and developers wanting to join Debian and help us work on our ever-improving operating system all the time.

On the main question, many of our competitors in the Linux world might be corporations with enterprise-level friends, but I strongly believe there is a place for a not-for-profit group like Debian. As well as packaging software that other people develop, Debian developers are often also upstream authors and collaborators on much of the common infrastructure that all the Linux distributors benefit from. We're not in this just to make money, but because we're passionate about making the best free operating system we can.

We also have many friends among the vendors. For a recent example, HP has described how they have made significant amounts of money from selling hardware with support for Debian. Others including Sun, AMD, Intel and IBM work with us to provide support or hardware. Large companies also regularly sponsor our annual development conference, Debconf. This year we're heading to Argentina for the conference and HP and Nokia are the two biggest supporters so far.

Commentators have said that Debian needs to look at its workflow processes and approach the project more like a commercial business organisation if it is to flourish. Would you agree with this approach?
Frankly, no. Debian is a volunteer-run organisation. Much of our workflow is driven by people working on the things that interest them. We have a large community of contributors with all kinds of backgrounds and skills. Trying to impose a more formal business process would cause many of those people to leave, possibly killing the project.

Do you still receive funding from not-for-profit umbrella organisation Software in the Public Interest (SPI)? And what path towards a more approach do you see Debian taking in the future?
SPI is not responsible for funding Debian; rather, it's an organisation that was created specifically to hold funds and act as a legal backend for Debian. It has now evolved into a more general umbrella group that provides similar functions for other projects as well: for example, PostgreSQL, OFTC, We're not looking for direct commercial fortune for Debian — that's not what we're about.

Will Debian always suffer from existing at the hobbyist programmer level and its inherent proximity to the archetypal non-business-minded software engineer mentality?
We may suffer a little in terms of external perceptions of us, but we're proud of our roots and what we achieve. Many of our developers are happy to be able to work on a high-quality project where doing things "right" is important. That's all too often something that's lacking in more business-minded organisations.

Debian will be 15 years old this August. Where would you like to see the project in another decade and a half?
That's a simple question! Bigger and better is my own hope: more developers, more software, more users, better quality and better features.

Topics: Developer


Adrian Bridgwater is a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. Primarily working as a news analysis writer, he is also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant. His expertise extends across a wider transept of the enterprise IT landscape, including open source, data analytics and intelligence, clou... Full Bio

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