The schedule was today outlined in an e-mail to the Debian community from developer Andreas Barth, a member of the team which coordinates the process by which Debian is formally handed over to the public.
"We expect to release Etch as planned in the beginning of December 2006," Barth wrote. In keeping with the Debian tradition of naming each version of its Linux distribution after a character from the film Toy Story, "Etch" is the code name for the December release.
The date represents a dramatic improvement in the regularity of Debian's development cycle. Etch will be shipped only 18 months after the previous release, version 3.1.
Prior to that June 2005 release, Debian had not officially shipped a stable version of its operating system since July 2002, three years previously. That gap had generated intense debate between the project's developers, some of whom wanted the software updated more frequently.
An Australian developer, Anthony Towns, was recently elected by the Debian community to lead the project. In his platform for election, Towns said the most important issue for Debian was "increasing its tempo".
"We've been slow in a lot of things, from releasing, to getting updates in, to processing applications from prospective developers, to fixing bugs, to making decisons on policy questions, and all sorts of other things."
However Barth warned the community the process would not be easy.
"We need to switch gears in order to make it happen," he said. "So please stop making disruptive uploads, and work on getting things smoother now."
Barth said there were still more than 400 bugs that needed to be fixed before Etch could be considered ready to go. "So, we ask you all to work on reducing the bug number again," he said.
One of the major new features of Etch will be official support for the 64-bit x86 architecture which is becoming increasingly used in servers. In addition most of the software bundled with the operating system will be updated to reflect ongoing development within the wider open source software community.
Debian is one of the most widely used Linux distributions. It also forms the basis for other popular distributions like Ubuntu.