Back Home, with Debian!

Thursday 14 January 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

By the end of 2004, I'd been running Debian ‘testing’ on my laptop since around early 2003. For almost two years, I'd lived with periodic instability — including a week in the spring of 2003 when I couldn't even get X11 started — for the sake of using a distribution that maximally respected software freedom.

I'd had no trouble with ‘potato’ for its two year lifespan, but after 6-8 months of woody, I was backporting far too much and I couldn't spare the time for upkeep. Running ‘testing’ was the next best option, as I could pin myself for 3-6 months at a time on a particularly stable day and have a de-facto “release”. But, I slowly was unable to spare the time for even that work, and I was ready to throw up my hands in surrender.

At just about that time, a thing called ‘warty’ was released. I'd already heard about this company, Canonical, as they'd tried earlier that year to buy a domain name I technically own (canonical.org), but had long since given over to a group of old friends. (They of course had no interest in selling such a “hot property”). This new distribution, Ubuntu, was Debian-based, and when installed, it “felt” like Debian. Canonical was committed to a six-month release schedule, so I said to myself: well, if I have to ‘go corporate’ again, I might as well go to something that works like the distribution I prefer. And so, my five year stint as an Ubuntu user began.

Of course, I hadn't always been a Debian user. I started in 1992 with SLS and quickly moved to Slackware. When the pain of that got too great, I went “corporate” for a while back then, too. I used Red Hat Linux from early 1996 until 1998. I ultimately gave up Red Hat because the distribution eventually became focused around the advancement of the company. They were happy to include lots of proprietary software — indeed, in the later 1990s, Red Hat CDs typically came with as many as two extra CDs filled with proprietary software. Red Hat (the company) had earlier made some efforts to appease us harder-core software-freedom folks. But, by the late 1990s, their briefly-lived RMS (aka Red Hat Means Source) distribution had withered completely. By then, I truly regretted my 1996 decision to go corporate, and fell in love quickly with Debian and its community-led, software-freedom-driven community. I remained a Debian user from 1998 until 2004.

But, by the end of 2004, the pain of waiting for ‘sarge’ was great. So, for technical reasons only, “going corporate” again seemed like a reasonable trade-off. Ubuntu initially looked basically like Debian: ‘main’ and ‘universe’ were FaiF, ‘restricted’ was like ‘non-free’.

Sadly, though, a for-profit, corporate-controlled distribution can never remain community-oriented. A for-profit company is eventually always going to put the acquisition of wealth above any community principle. So it has become with Ubuntu, in my view. The time has come (for me, at least) to go back to a truly community-oriented, software-freedom-respecting distribution. (Hopefully, I'll also never be tempted to leave again.)

I didn't take this decision lightly, and didn't take it for only one reason. I've gone back to Debian for three (now) seven specific reasons:

(Updated on 2010-02-17: As can be seen above, my mere list of three reasons posted just one month ago has now more than doubled! It's as if Canonical made a 2010 plan to “do less software freedom”, and is executing it with amazing corporate efficiency. As Queen Gertrude says in Hamlet, One woe doth tread upon another's heel, so fast they follow.)

When considering all this and taking a step back and look at the status of major distributions, my honest assessment is this: among the two primary corporate-controlled-but-dabbling-in-community-orientation distributions (aka Fedora and Ubuntu), Fedora is clearly much more software-freedom-friendly. Nevertheless, since I've twice gone corporate and ultimately regretted it, I decided it was time to go back home — back to Debian.

So, during the last week of 2009, I took nearly two full days off to reinstall and configure my laptop from scratch with lenny. I've thus been back on Debian since 2010-01-01. Twelve days in, I am very impressed. Really, all the things I liked about Ubuntu are now available upstream as well. This isn't the distribution I left in 2004; it's much better, all while being truly community-oriented and software-freedom-respecting. It's good to be home. Thank you, Debian developers.


0 For more information on the danger that proprietary network services pose to software freedom, please see the Franklin Street Statement.

Posted on Thursday 14 January 2010 at 12:04 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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#include <std/disclaimer.h>
use Standard::Disclaimer;
from standard import disclaimer
SELECT full_text FROM standard WHERE type = 'disclaimer';

Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

— bkuhn


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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>