The new Debian Linux: Irrelevant?

People don't notice Debian Linux releases as much as they used to. There's a reason for that, Debian, despite its close relationship to Ubuntu, is becoming irrelevant.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Once upon a time, a new Debian Linux release was a big deal in Linux circles. It still is, but its child, Ubuntu Linux, is the Linux distribution that gets all the headlines. There's a reason for that. Over the years, Debian has become more and more a Linux just for Linux fanatics while the rest of the Linux family has become more end-user friendly.

As I look over the features in the latest Debian, I can see why Debian, while still popular as a building block for other Linux distributions, is no longer as important as it once was. For example, the default Debian distributions won't include any proprietary firmware binary files. While that will be popular with die-hard free software fans, users who just want to use their Wi-Fi hardware and to get the most from their graphics cards won't be happy.

If, as is likely if you're using a laptop or a PC with high-end graphics and you find you're running into hardware problems, the Debian installation program should alert you the problem. That's fine as far as it goes, but the installation routine won't automatically download the missing firmware from the Web. Instead, you'll need to pause the installation while you fetch the missing in action firmware from either the Debian non-free firmware ftp site or the vendor's site.

OK, that's doable if you're a power user. If you're not, it's a confusing pain-in-the-rump.

The theory is that by doing this outraged users will demand that hardware vendors will open-source their device drivers, or, at the least, let Linux developers write open-source drivers for proprietary hardware. In practice, it doesn't work that way.

True, more and more companies are open-sourcing their drivers, such as Broadcom, the Wi-Fi device original equipment manufacturers (OEM). The real driver for this hasn't been free software fans demanding drivers, but Linux-friendly OEMs like Dell demanding open-source drivers.

By doing this, all Debian is doing with this move is satisfying its existing free software base and alienating possible new users. In a similar vein, Debian is continuing the farce of using Iceweasel 3.5.16, an unbranded version of Firefox, and Icedove 3.0.11, an unbranded version of Thunderbird because Mozilla, Firefox and Thunderbird's parent organization, won't let Debian, or its users. muck with these programs trademarked names and logos.

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Here's the Good Debian News

Now, that I have that out of my system, here's the good news. First, as someone who loves to play with operating systems, that Debian now offers a version that will run on top of FreeBSD, one of the BSD Unix operating systems.

That's just me and a few other people whose idea of a good time is tinkering with operating systems though. I think more people will be impressed by the sheer range of open-source software that Debian brings to the distribution. In 6.0, there are more than 10,000 new programs including Google's open-source version of Chrome, Chromium, Ubuntu's Software Center, and the cluster framework Corosync.

Debian also makes it easy to get a specialized version just for your particular job in its newly renamed to Debian Pure Blends. These include Debian Accessibility, DebiChem, Debian GIS, Debian Multimedia Debian Edu,and Debian Science.

And, as always, no matter what your hardware, Debian probably has a version that will run on it. Debian now supports nine architectures: 32-bit PC / Intel IA-32 (i386), 64-bit PC / Intel EM64T / x86-64 (amd64), Motorola/IBM PowerPC (powerpc), Sun/Oracle SPARC (sparc), MIPS (mips (big-endian) and mipsel (little-endian), Intel Itanium (ia64), IBM S/390 (s390), and ARM EABI (armel).

That's all grand, but as I look at the whole Debian situation, it seems to me that Ubuntu, with its leading the way from X Window to Wayland for Linux's foundation graphics and its new take, Unity, on the Linux desktop is now the ground-breaking Linux distribution that Debian once was. At the same time, Ubuntu is continuing to expand the Linux audience, while Debian continues to be a system that only hard-core Debian Linux fans will use.

Debian is still important. Its developers do a lot of the hard work of mixing and matching basic Linux components and many open-source programs into the strong, reliable foundation that other versions of Linux, such as Ubuntu and MEPIS use. But, while Linux programmers will continue to appreciate Debian, it seems to me that Debian is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the larger user community that Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora, and openSUSE has brought into the Linux fold.

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