This is a question that I've been recently asking myself. Within the Linux crowd, Debian is often looked upon as one of the leaders in stability and community. If you download and try the latest live distribution, you'll find it looks pretty much like every standard desktop Linux (with a choice of GNOME, KDE, LXDE, or XFCE desktops). It's fast, it's reliable... so what gives?
Why in the world would a distribution that Ubuntu is based on not stand at the top of the pop charts of Linux distributions? I decided to run the latest iteration to see if I could draw any conclusions.
Before I continue, I should say that Debian does currently sit at number 3 on the Distrowatch — just under Mint and Ubuntu. That is great news! However, when you go outside of that particular site, you don't see much talk of Debian (outside of release announcements).
Why? Why? Why?
Let's see if I can find any answers to that question.
I opted for the GNOME edition of 7.7.0. Once the live version spun up, everything was surprisingly quite snappy (my test machine is an older Sony Vaio laptop). But immediately, the first gotcha hit me.
To give you a bit of perspective, I have yet to run across a Linux distribution that didn't play well with the wireless on this particular laptop. Ubuntu, Fedora, Mint, SuSE, Elementary, Bodhi, Arch, Deepin, Tails, Kali Linux ... everything picked up the wireless chipset without a problem. Debian, on the other hand, didn't even recognize the wireless card.
The heart of that confounding issue lies in the fact that all of Debian default repositories contain only free software. What does that mean to the average user? Chances are, you're not going to like what you're told. Sure, the seasoned Linux user can hop on over to this firmware repository, download the necessary firmware, and get their wireless, ethernet, Bluetooth, sound, USB, and more up and running.
At this point, two different questions will be asked by two different types of users.
- User 1 (hardcore Linux user): What's the big deal?
- User 2 (average computer user): It's 2015, shouldn't this stuff just work?
Being a long-time Linux user, adding some firmware to an installation isn't a problem for me. But to the overwhelming majority of users out there, this is a problem... a deal-breaker level problem.
I want to preface my next statement by saying that I greatly admire the idea behind only offering free software for a distribution. After all, free software is the heart and soul of open source. However, any distribution that releases with nothing but free software drastically limits its audience. Ultimately, the average user:
- doesn't want to have to install firmware so they can get online
- doesn't want to have to install extra software so they can play music or movies
- doesn't really care about the license a piece of software is released under
What the average user does care about is that their software works — reliably and securely. That's it.
This is where the pseudo-tragedy comes into play. If the average user wouldn't mind adding that firmware to Debian, they'd wind up with one of most rock-solid operating systems they've ever used — or if Debian would include the non-free firmware (so that the machines just worked), this would be a non-issue. Another option (one that could be appealing to all involved) would be similar to how Ubuntu deals with the issue of non-free codecs. During the installation process, there could be an option for the inclusion of non-free software and firmware that would resolve wireless, sound, and other issues. Of course, if installing on a laptop, the machine would have to be connected to a wired network (otherwise this option would fail in some instances — as in, you have to have network to get network) before this option would work.
I realize this will not happen. The developers of Debian stand firm on their exclusion of non-free software, and I applaud them for that. But they do so knowing that they turn their distribution into a niche's niche.
In the end, the answer to the question "Why aren't more people using Debian?" lies in the very nature of the distribution itself. Free software is a glorious and admirable path to take, but its one that — when adhered to with a fanatical conviction — will lesson the widespread impact of the platform. Debian is a distribution that deserves much more attention than it gets. In order for that to happen, a compromise might have to occur. Will that ever happen? Probably not. Should it? I'd be inclined to say "yes."
What do you think? Should such a compromise come to fruition — or should Debian retain its unyielding conviction to release with only free software? Tell us your opinion in the discussion thread below.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.