Debian: We're not looking for commercial fortune

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

SHARE: 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: Apps, Software Development

Adrian Bridgwater

About Adrian Bridgwater

Adrian Bridgwater a freelance journalist specialising in cross platform software application development as well as all related aspects of software engineering and project management.

Adrian is a regular blogger with covering the application development landscape and the movers, shakers and start-ups that make the industry the vibrant place that it is.

His journalistic creed is to bring forward-thinking, impartial, technology editorial to a professional (and hobbyist) software audience around the world. His mission is to objectively inform, educate and challenge - and through this champion better coding capabilities and ultimately better software engineering.

Adrian has worked as a freelance technology journalist and public relations consultant for over fifteen years. His work has been published in various international publications including the Wall Street Journal,, The Register,, BBC World Service magazines, Web Designer magazine,, the UAE’s Khaleej Times & and SYS-CON’s Web Developer’s Journal. He has worked as technology editor for international travel & retail magazines and also produced annual technology industry review features for UK-based publishers ISC. Additionally, he has worked as a telecoms industry analyst for Business Monitor International.

In previous commercially focused roles, Adrian directed publicity work for clients including IBM, Microsoft, Compaq, Intel, Motorola, Computer Associates, Ascom, Infonet and RIM. Adrian has also conducted media training and consultancy programmes for companies including Sony-Ericsson, IBM, RIM and Kingston Technology.

He is also a published travel writer and has lived and worked abroad for 10 years in Tanzania, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and the United States.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Not even-handed

    I thought this was a very bad interview. All the questions seemed very biased and negative.

    I think you would have gained far more insight if you hadn't forced Steve on the defensive all the time. As it was I think he handled matters very well.
  • Scientific study about Debian Project governance and social organization

    How did a big non-commercial, non-paying community evolve into one that produces some of the most respectable Operating Systems and applications packages available?

    Two academic management researchers, Siobh
  • Hard questions

    Thanks for your comments

    I agree that there were some hard questions in that interview but I disagree that is was biased or overly negative.

    The questions below were also asked which clearly gave the interviewee an opportunity to both discuss his vision and hopes for the organisation:

    Why did you take on the role of Debian project leader, and what do you hope to bring to the development of the operating system?

    Debian author Ian Murdoch was also a founding director of the Open Source Initiative. Why do you think he saw the need for a new flavour of Linux with the particular look, feel and structure of Debian?

    Debian's software-development methodology hinges around the provision of precompiled software "packages" that effectively form reusable components. How do you vet newly proposed packages, and what type of components would you like to see developed in the future

    Debian will be 15 years old this August. Where would you like to see the project in another decade and a half?
    Andrew Donoghue
  • background info about Debian

    You could find condensed information, with good links for further information about Debian Project at the "About Debian Project" at the end of the recent announcements at the
    There is an alternate url for one of the recent ones at the link

    <a href="">19 new Debian Developers this week: The Debian Project improves its New Maintainer process</a>

    I hope these help at your work.
    Andre Felipe