Debian - The Universal Operating System?

Do we provide what users need?
Do users get what they really want?

DebConf 7,Edinburgh, 22. June 2007


Debian GNU/Linux is a Linux distribution that is heavily used as a base for several derivatives - there is no other distribution that has such a large number of derived distributions. This is one reason to make us proud because we are considered solid and rock stable. But the question remains: Why do these people not use plain Debian instead of building their own distribution?

Debian wants to be "The Universal Operating System" - at least the title of the homepage says so. What means universal? One of WordNet answers is "adapted to various purposes, sizes, forms, operations". If we agree to this definition we have to experience: Debian is not really adapted to various purposes but it is perfectly adaptable.

It is not really bad if Debian is adaptable to various purposes and the fact that Debian and even its derivatives are used as a base for adaptations makes us proud. It is s good sign that Debian is an unspecialised base system which is not really modified for a particular purpose or function which makes it attractive for adaptation to any purpose because it is known to be very robust and stable. So in short: We do a quite good job but it does not really qualify for the attribute "universal".

The first question is: Do we really want to be universal? If we answer this with yes, the next question is: Can we as a group of more or less independent maintainers afford this? My answer to this question is yes and the method to do this are Custom Debian Distributions. Currently we leave most of the work that could be perfectly done inside Debian to outsiders. The fact that outsiders constantly are working on enhancing Debian in a certain direction means: There are things missing in Debian and there are things our users are needing that we do not provide.

Over several years I was constantly seeking for reasons, why we seem to fail the task of making adaptations and derivatives superfluous. What makes people keen on changing Debian to fit their needs. The answer to this question goes in two directions:

  1. The current structure of Debian does not allow the creation of an universal, multipurpose system.
  2. It is impossible to fit all needs - so why not at least making it brain dead easy to adapt Debian.

In the talk I try to discuss issues that might help us to change Debian from a geekish system to something people who consider themselves "only simple user" (whatever this might be) want to use instead something they are afraid of. Even if we members of the conference know that there is no reason to be afraid of Debian ...

Note: That is not really a technical talk but it concerns considerations about organisational structure, ways to widen the view from single maintainer - single package (1:1) or maintaining group - single package (n:1) development model to a customisation group - Custom Debian Distribution (n:m) development model to offer our users who need m packages interacting together the optimal system.