Happy Birthday Debian!: A Brief History

While Debian is the most built-upon distro out there (using “number of derivative distros” as the metric), it’s certainly not the most behind the scenes of them all. The Debian foundation having started back on August 16th, 1993, today Debian contributors are a network of more than 6000 strong (with more than 1000 contributors having pitched in just in 2018). This year, however, marks a milestone of 25 years that Debian has been chugging along.

Unlike other distros, Debian doesn’t follow a strict release schedule, nor do they exactly focus on rolling release. It seems to be a mix of the two, following almost a biennial release schedule, releasing every other years, give or take a few months. While many who use Debian may have noticed this, what they may not have known is where the names for the Debian releases actually came from.

Bruce Perens was a Debian Project Leader back in April in the year 1996 up until December of 1997 wherein the first three official releases of Debian (starting with version 1.1) took place. These releases were named Buzz, Rex, and Bo (as in Bo Peep) for versions 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3, respectively. If you know anything about Pixar (where Bruce Perens was working at the time), they were the ones who made a milestone movie called Toy Story. At the time this was a revolutionary project that Pixar worked on that changed the animated film industry for good. The names of those first three releases were all names for characters that were part of the Toy Story movie.

Buzz is Buzz Lightyear, Rex is the dinosaur, and Bo Peep was Woody’s under-the-surface lust interest. Since the first three releases (and the planned fourth release) were all named after Toy Story characters, the next project leader, and ones after that, decided that they would keep with tradition and go on with the naming scheme. For a full list of the releases and the name explanations, click here.

But let’s get into the meat and gravy about some more Debian history. Ian Murdock, with the Debian Foundation, wanted to change the way that people installed Linux. In his initial announcement of his founding of the foundation, Ian Murdock sets out to eliminate things like multiple copies of the same binary and scarce documentation. Murdock wanted to remove the thousands of questions that one might have to answer regarding package installations during the Linux installation procedure. Debian was meant to be a revolution that would change the way people used and experienced Linux.

As Slackware is the closest today that we can get to the same experience one had back in the early 90’s (save for the manpages), I’ll use that as the point of reference against which to compare Debian’s proposed changes. Back in the 90’s, you had to install every single package yourself. This is okay for the initial install but if you wanted to make sure you were up to date, you had to go out and find the source of your package. God forbid there were any binaries publicly available, you usually had to compile these packages yourself. The worst part is unless you knew exactly where a package came from and who was maintaining it, you couldn’t be sure you had the most up to date code.

Forget making sure you had the right dependencies. Unless you were familiar with a given package, it was either hope and pray whatever you already had was enough, or you searched through pages of newsgroups finding the guide to installation. Man pages were very scarce and many different versions of the same man page could have existed on your system if you didn’t maintain it right. Up until Debian was released, you could have 16 man pages for ls and unless you manually purged these things, you wouldn’t have even been aware.

Today multiple copies of the same text file may be inconsequential, but multiple versions of the same binary wouldn’t be. Especially in the early 90’s, where 1GB was about all you had to store things in your home computer, if you had one. Once dpkgwas established as a package manager, and upgrading ‘scripts’ were a part of the system, you didn’t have to question whether or not your binaries were the most up to date versions or whether there were several copies on board. dpkg would go out and fetch the packages, installing them once they were downloaded. You also had a choice in which binaries were installed or upgraded as part of this.

You could even choose which packages were to be installed, and then leave your machine alone! Prior to Debian, it was like Slackware is now, but worse. You had to babysit the installation. If you left, you weren’t greeted with a freshly installed Linux. No, before Debian, you were greeted with yet another question about whether you wanted this package-a or package-that-does-a’s-stuff-but-differently. For those who ever installed Windows 95, it was worse even than that, by a factor of 10. At least with Windows 95, you were sort of guaranteed to have a functional system by the end.

So let’s celebrate Debian’s 25th birthday. Let’s give a hand to all the contributors. Whether you’ve contributed with code or with documentation, with artwork or simply by talking about Debian with future Linux users, you’re amazing for what you do and you help to make the Debian community an amazing place. Keep doing what you’re doing. When someone sees you and decides to make their own contributions, know that you helped that happen.

Sources:
https://www.electrictoolbox.com/debian-release-names/ – Debian release name explanations
https://www.flickr.com/photos/iamurdock/20006308374/ – Original Debian Foundation founding announcement
https://distrowatch.com/images/other/distro-family-tree.png – Distro family tree

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