The distribution of Linux as a commercial product is unique in the world of computer software in that most commercial Linux enterprises have not developed the systems that they market and sell.
Linux is freely-available and freely-redistributable, so anyone who wishes
to do so may obtain a Linux distribution and resell it for profit without
the need to obtain licenses or pay royalties. The GNU General Public
License, which covers most system-level components and distributions
of Linux software, legally allows the occurrence of this "unusual"
practice. There is little chance that Linux could ever have reached
the level of quality that it has today without the freedom provided
to its users by the GNU General Public License. However, the freedom
that has made Linux possible also poses an interesting problem to the
legitimacy of it in the eyes of the large commercial organizations in
which it must gain acceptance to succeed. "What exactly is `Linux'? Is a
particular distribution `Linux'? What is the difference between `Linux'
and a `Linux distribution'? Why hasn't this particular commercial vendor
developed their own distribution of Linux? Who else will stand behind
and support the Linux product if its vendor has not developed it? Is
Linux for hackers and hobbyists, or is it really a suitable replacement
for the commercial operating systems in use at `real-life' businesses?"
There has been much talk lately of consortiums, foundations and official
Linux organizations to ensure that the pursuit of profit by commercial
Linux distributors will never take precedence over the quality of the
products and services that they sell. Others have suggested that the
developers of the system-level software or end-user distributions should
undertake the responsibility; after all, the developers spend a great
deal of time and energy constructing the software and systems for free
and are not likely to "sell out" for profit.
Whether we like it or not, Linux is rapidly becoming big business and
individuals are profiting from it. While it does not bother me personally
that people are making a living from distributing and selling Linux, we,
the developers and users of it, must ensure that providing a first-class
product remains the highest priority of such businesses and that the
future of the operating system is never compromised in the battle for
competitive advantage and higher profit. Only by doing so can we assure
the future success of Linux in the commercial market, a success that
will benefit everyone.
Before proceeding further, an introduction is probably in order. My name
is Ian A. Murdock, and in mid-August of 1993 I began working on what
would eventually become the Debian Linux distribution. Over the past
four months and with the assistance and support of hundreds of users
around the world, Debian has evolved into a commercial-quality system
that will soon be able to compete successfully alongside commercial
UNIX implementations and non-UNIX operating systems alike. By the time
this article is published, Debian will be available to the public via
We are also currently in the process of forming the Debian Linux
Association, an organization that will serve as the official maintainer
of Debian and the backbone and "watchdog" of commercial distribution of
it. The Free Software Foundation is involved and will soon be distributing
Debian on CD-ROM. There is much work to be done yet, but just as much
progress has already been made. The future looks very bright, and by
the beginning of March 1994 we hope to be well on our way toward our
goal of making Linux a viable alternative to commercial operating systems.
My goal from the beginning has been to create a commercial-quality
distribution of the Linux operating system, a product which has not
existed until now but which is absolutely essential to the success of
Linux in the commercial market. In this month's column I am including
the Debian Linux Manifesto as a means of introducing what I have done and
what I plan to do with Debian Linux. In future columns I will discuss
such topics as the commercial potential of Linux, the problems with the
current commercial distribution of the operating system and the progress
of the Debian Linux Association toward solving these problems.
What is Debian Linux?
Why is Debian being constructed?
Distributions are essential to the future of Linux. Essentially, they
eliminate the need for the user to locate, download, compile, install and
integrate a fairly large number of essential tools to assemble a working
Linux system. Instead, the burden of system construction is placed on the
distribution creator, whose work can be shared with thousands of other
users. Almost all users of Linux will get their first taste of it through
a distribution, and most users will continue to use a distribution for
the sake of convenience even after they are familiar with the operating
system. Thus, distributions play a very important role indeed.
Despite their obvious importance, distributions have attracted little
attention from developers. There is a simple reason for this: they are
neither easy nor glamorous to construct and require a great deal of
ongoing effort from the creator to keep the distribution bug-free and
up-to-date. It is one thing to put together a system from scratch; it is
quite another to ensure that the system is easy for others to install, is
installable and usable under a wide variety of hardware configurations,
contains software that others will find useful, and is updated when the
components themselves are improved.
Many distributions have started out as fairly good systems, but as time
passes attention to maintaining the distribution becomes a secondary
concern. A case-in-point is the Softlanding Linux System (better known
as SLS). It is quite possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained
Linux distribution available; unfortunately, it is also quite possibly the
most popular. It is, without question, the distribution that attracts the
most attention from the many commercial "distributors" of Linux that have
surfaced to capitalize on the growing popularity of the operating system.
This is a bad combination indeed, as most people who obtain Linux from
these "distributors" receive a bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux
distribution. As if this wasn't bad enough, these "distributors" have a
disturbing tendency to misleadingly advertise non-functional or extremely
unstable "features" of their product. Combine this with the fact that the
buyers will, of course, expect the product to live up to its advertisement
and the fact that many may believe it to be a commercial operating system
as there is also a tendency not to mention that Linux is free nor that it
is distributed under the GNU General Public License. To top it all off,
these "distributors" are actually making enough money from their effort
to justify buying larger advertisements in more magazines; it is the
classic example of unacceptable behavior being rewarded by those who
simply do not know any better. Clearly something needs to be done to
remedy the situation.
How will Debian attempt to put an end to these problems?
The Debian design process is open to ensure that the system is of the
highest quality and that it reflects the needs of the user community. By
involving others with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds, Debian
is able to be developed in a modular fashion. Its components are of
high quality because those with expertise in a certain area are given
the opportunity to construct or maintain the individual components of
Debian involving that area. Involving others also ensures that valuable
suggestions for improvement can be incorporated into the distribution
during its development; thus, a distribution is created based on the
needs and wants of the users rather than the needs and wants of the
constructor. It is very difficult for one individual or small group
to anticipate these needs and wants in advance without direct input
Debian Linux will also be distributed on physical media by the Free
Software Foundation and the Debian Linux Association. This provides
Debian to users without access to the Internet or FTP and additionally
makes products and services such as printed manuals and technical support
available to all users of the system. In this way, Debian may be used
by many more individuals and organizations than is otherwise possible,
the focus will be on providing a first-class product and not on profits
or returns, and the margin from the products and services provided may
be used to improve the software itself for all users whether they paid
to obtain it or not.
The Free Software Foundation plays an extremely important role in the
future of Debian. By the simple fact that they will be distributing it,
a message is sent to the world that Linux is not a commercial product
and that it never should be, but that this does not mean that Linux will
never be able to compete commercially. For those of you who disagree,
I challenge you to rationalize the success of GNU Emacs and GCC, which
are not commercial software but which have had quite an impact on the
commercial market regardless of that fact.
The time has come to concentrate on the future of Linux rather than on
the destructive goal of enriching oneself at the expense of the entire
Linux community and its future. The development and distribution of
Debian may not be the answer to the problems that I have outlined in the
Manifesto, but I hope that it will at least attract enough attention to
these problems to allow them to be solved.