Debian 7: The New Upstream

Tuesday May 7th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Just because the new Debian release isn't focused on the desktop doesn't mean it won't be influential.

New Debian releases sometimes seem like ice ages—you hardly expect to see more than one in your lifetime. Debian has never been constrained by a release schedule, and the recently-released Debian 7.0 (codenamed "Wheezy") comes twenty-seven months after the previous one—a lapse of millennia in development terms, much to the dismay of Debian-based distros.

However, Debian releases have always been good at demonstrating the project's priorities, and Debian 7.0 is no exception.

Like earlier releases, the latest Debian attempts to appeal to a variety of users. However, unlike Ubuntu, Linux Mint or Fedora, Debian 7.0 gives little special attention to desktop users, tending to focus more on configuration and administration. Wheezy shows Debian settling into its post-Ubuntu role of upstream supplier to Debian-based distros, providing an all-purpose distro and leaving the specialization to others.

The De-Emphasized Desktop

Debian's sense of priority is very clear from the outset. After all, what other distribution these days defaults to the text-based installer and not the graphical one?

Similarly, where desktop distros sport air-brushed wallpaper or gradients based on carefully chosen colors, Debian 7.0 defaults to a minimalistic, monochromatic black and white. This default may reduce perceptual problems for the color-blind, but it is hardly a choice designed for mass appeal. The most you can say is that users will take it more seriously than the cartoon spaceships of the previous release.

As for the list of major packages in the release announcement, Debian 7.0's kernel and versions of GNOME and KDE are all twelve months older or more. Iceweasel, Debian's version of Firefox, is at version 10, while Mozilla is about to release version 21. The kernel is 3.02, while the kernel project has just announced 3.9. The closest you get to current is GIMP 2.8.2, only a couple of point releases from the 2.8.4 release available directly from the project.

Debian 7.0 does have a new help system. Otherwise, though, all the other features mentioned as new are ones that originated elsewhere, such as the Sushi previewer for GNOME or improved codec support for multimedia due to licensing changes.

None of which is to say that Debian doesn't have an active desktop community. Even the digest of its users' mailing list, which is supposed to cut down on email traffic, can arrive seven or eight times a day.

However, the point is, Debian is unconcerned about attracting new users, especially compared to other major distros. Given its age and reputation, it hardly needs to be. People dissatisfied with other distributions are already checking it out.

The unstated reasoning seems to be that, if a Debian-based distribution doesn't satisfy you, then consider going directly to the original. A search on Google gives 2.8 million results for "Debian vs. Ubuntu," and 672,000 for Debian vs. Mint.

Comparisons with non-Debian-based distros are almost as popular, with 1.47 million results for Debian vs. Fedora, and 676,000 for Debian vs. Mageia. Debian, you might say, is the distribution that others are most frequently measured against.

At any rate, although Debian developers celebrate their releases with as much enthusiasm as developers elsewhere, releases mean less to many Debian users than they do to the users of most major distributions.

Unless Debian users are setting up a server and staying with Debian Stable for the sake of security and reliability, most use the project's repositories of Stable, Testing, and Unstable as a form of rolling releases. By the time a package reaches the stable repository, many users have long ago installed it from Debian Testing, if not from Unstable.

Unlike the official releases of other distributions, Debian Stable rarely offers much that users are not already using. Consequently, desktop users have rarely been the target of Debian's official releases.

Users tend to use the command apt-get dist-upgrade to ensure that no corner of their system has been overlooked, but they are unlikely to be enticed by anything that an official release offers. If a Debian user wants a new wallpaper, they are generally capable of providing it for themselves.

Swimming Upstream

Debian's lack of emphasis on the desktop and the latest packages has led at least one writer to conclude that the distribution fails to innovate.

However, it would be more accurate to say that Debian's innovations are centered elsewhere—namely on security and administration—as its developers try to live up to its slogan of "the universal operating system."

Why else would Debian 7.0's release notes start with the announcement that the distribution now supports the s390x hardware architecture, a replacement for the s390, and armhf, a replacement for ARMv7 machines? These announcements are immediately followed by a list of the ten architectures currently supported by Debian.

The notes make no comparisons. However, by contrast, Ubuntu supports three (only two actively) Linux Mint two and Fedora five. The difference is unimportant to most desktop users, but one those involved with niche architectures can readily appreciate.

Another innovation that is easy to miss is Debian's new policy of building packages with the GCC compile hardening options. While casual users are unlikely to notice the difference, this means that basic security is provided against some of the more common types of attacks.

The Debian installer has also been improved. It now supports another three languages for a total of 74. In twelve of those languages, the installer supports speech—a major accessibility feature that, so far as I am aware, is unmatched by any major distribution.

Such features belie Debian's reputation for being hard to install. True, its installer still has its rough places—notably its relative lack of information about what apt is, or what the sets of packages to install, such as File or SSH Server, might mean. However, while some users might be intimidated by the mere face of the default text installer, increasingly the Debian installer is more informative and no harder to use than other installers that achieve simplicity by offering fewer choices and explanations.

In other places, the foundation for later improvements has been laid. For instance, Debian 7 provides initial support for Systemd, which will likely replace Init in the next year or so. A backports repository has also been created for the new release, to keep it updated, as well as support for AppArmor, which can be turned on for additional support.

However, probably the most obvious and immediately important innovation is Debian 7's ability to included packages built for different architectures in the same system. Given that the adoption of 64-bit systems seems stalled indefinitely, this feature could help to make them easier to use by compensating for their deficiencies with 32-bit packages. Down the road, they could allow migration to 64-bit systems without a complete reinstall and make the support for multiple architectures easier to install.

Such features quickly discredit any idea that Debian is unable to innovate. Debian 7 simply concentrates on the big picture. If it offers few new icons on the desktop, its improvements do improve versatility, ease of use and security—none of which should be dismissed because they are not spectacular.

Quiet Influence

What is especially important about the changes in Debian 7 is that their benefits are not confined to the users of one distribution alone. As Ubuntu, Linux Mint and other Debian-based distributions borrow from Debian, their security will benefit from packages built with security-hardening flags. The Debian installer will be available for the blind or speakers of many minority languages to use.

Eventually, in true free software fashion, these and other innovations in Debian 7 will be passed along to non-Debian distributions—simply because they are good ideas.

Debian 7 is not the kind of distribution that convinces users to switch to it.

All the same, it boasts several features that should be standard in most distributions by this time next year. It may not be a revolutionary release, but that doesn't mean it doesn't promise to be an influential one in its own quiet way. Increasingly, what happens in Debian is what will be happening in other distributions in the future—regardless of how current its desktop packages happen to be.

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