Debian has celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. IIRC, I’ve installed Debian in 1995 for the first time, version 0.93R5. My very first GNU/Linux distribution was SLS (who knows today what it was?). I switched to Slackware soon and after some time I decided it might be a good idea to try something else once again. Looking at our faculty FTP server I’ve found a distribution called Debian with interesting development model and with package dependencies (missing dependencies were quite a problem with Slackware that time and Debian was the only distribution solving the problem). About a year later I became one of the Debian developers.
I’ve never switched to another distribution again since I installed Debian for the first time and I’ve remained a Debian user (and developer) till today. Although I tried to install and use other Linux distributions during the time I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of them. Even in times when I wasn’t particularly happy with Debian my research led just to the conclusion there was no real alternative.
Although Debian has never been the most popular GNU/Linux distribution it has still been very successful for all the years, having solid user base and grounds. What makes it so successful? I can see three basic reasons.
For first, Debian’s top priority has always been software freedom, since its beginning. Debian’s insistence on being a truly free software distribution makes its development and use unrestricted, independent and cooperative.
For second, Debian has always been a non-commercial distribution directed only by its developers. Its development approach “users for users” makes it free from big commercial pressures, bureaucratic constraints or similar destructive problems. The development is based on democratic decision processes and efforts to reach consensus rather than making simple decisions dictating what to do. This is not always easy and quiet but it contributes to long-term success. Debian has also been successful in self-organizing and managing its growth, which isn’t easy for a group of more than thousand less or more regular voluntary contributors. Commercial activities are left to Debian derivatives, which is a good thing.
For third, Debian prefers stability over feature creep or release rush. I can confirm it’s sometimes annoying but in the final result it makes the life of users much easier. There is a choice between stable releases and testing, unstable and experimental continuous branches. Many other distributions, despite being smaller, are unable to provide equivalents to Debian stable (whether they offer something named this way or not), sometimes being even less stable than Debian unstable.
In my view Debian excellently demonstrates the strength of free software. It’s a unique phenomenon, being the only large, stable, independent and completely free software distribution with sustainable development. It perfectly complements the great and successful free software projects such as Linux, GNU and others. It also serves as a basis of many other GNU/Linux distributions of various kinds derived from it. Let’s wish to Debian the best for its next years.