April 13, 2007

Debian redefines itself with new release

Author: Bruce Byfield

For much of its history, Debian has been the major noncommercial, philosophically free distribution. Now, as Debian developers and users have deserted the distro for Ubuntu, does Debian have a purpose any more? Debian 4.0, which was released this week, represents a collective effort to answer that question. The philosophy behind the release is best summarized on the home page for the Debian on the Desktop subproject, which states, "We will do everything we can to make things very easy for the novice, while allowing the expert to tweak things."

In other words, instead of trying to compete directly with distros like Ubuntu for ease of use, Debian is experimenting with a different approach. While growing aware of the need to work with new users, it is also preserving some of the traditional do-it-yourself approach of free software by giving users the chance to learn more about their operating system should they choose. This philosophy shows in every aspect of Debian 4.0, from its install program to its desktop, software installation, security, and software management.

The attempt to strike a balance between different categories of users is most obvious in the installation program. The netinstall version that I used sets up a GNOME desktop, but CD images for KDE and Xfce are also available. Similarly, although the installer continues to default to the highly serviceable text mode that Debian has used for several years now, you can use the command installgui to use a graphical version of the program that runs directly from the framebuffer without the X Window System, or choose a text-based or graphical expert mode. The GUIs even give a nod to reviewers by including a screenshot button in most windows whose output awaits you in /var/log when you log on the newly installed system.

None of the versions of the installer are as simple as Ubuntu's, but, in compensation, anyone who uses one can hardly help but come away with a stronger understanding of their system. Earlier versions of the Debian installer have asked questions that inexperienced users would find puzzling, such as the domain name of their workstations. The current version of the installer still asks the question, but with clear and concise help that explains what a domain name is, and adds, "If you are setting up a home network, you can make something up, but make sure you use the same domain name on all your computers."

An especially strong example of how the installer tries to appeal simultaneously to different kinds of users is the partitioning section. Users can choose not only to manually partition, or to be guided through the process, but also whether to use an unencrypted or encrypted logical volume manager. Users are also given a choice of several partitioning schemes, ranging from a single partition to separate partitions for /, /home, /usr, /var, and /tmp. If they choose, they can then change the size and filesystem for each partition. Although more discussion of the possible choices would aid novices even more, on the whole the partitioning section does a careful job of providing simple defaults while giving users the option of greater complexity.

The expert mode gives even more options, allowing users to specify an ISO-8859, legacy, or UTF-8 locale; whether to load additional installer components such as dialup Internet; the kernel to use; and whether to set up the package repositories to allow the installation of non-free software. While novices might lose themselves in the maze of choices, many intermediate users would find the expert mode an education in itself, especially if a little more help were added.

Desktop automation and defaults

While previous Debian releases did not exactly neglect the desktop, they often did little to customize it or to improve the user experience. Debian 4.0, while no match for Ubuntu's polish, reverses this tradition with a unifying debian-moreblue default theme and a balanced selection of settings.

Some of these settings are not so much Debian's doing as a trickle-down from GNOME, such as the selection of menu items and the dialog window for entering the root password when making system-wide changes, but Debian adds its own touches. The main menu, for example, includes the classic Debian menus for those who want more comprehensive entries, as well as the Alacarte Menu editor for those who want to customize their menus.

Other changes include the installation of MPlayer, which allows the playing of videos in Mozilla-based browsers -- although Debian 4.0 leaves out the Win32 codecs that would allow users to play several standard video formats. One of the most obvious changes is that, unlike earlier major releases, Debian 4.0 now includes GNOME help -- a direct result of the Debian project's vote last year that documents issued under the GNU Free Documentation License that contain no invariant sections are free and can therefore be included in the distribution.

The Debian desktop could still benefit from more attention to the user experience. Why, for example, does the top panel include a launcher for Evolution but no other standard programs? But the new release is a step in a right direction, even if more steps are still needed.

Software selection

As in recent Debian sub-releases, Debian 4.0 tends to a minimalist approach to software. The default package selections in the installer are for system utilities and a desktop environment -- a total of 656 packages, about a third of the amount found in some modern distributions. The result is a lean system that users can boot with a sense of exactly what is on the system, at the expense of needing to be prepared to spend some time after installation adding favorite programs, such as X-Chat. Even Mono, which is increasingly a standard dependency of GNOME panel applets, is not installed by default, although those who have suffered through recent efforts to add it in Debian will be relieved to find that the dependencies are finally correct in the package repositories.

Debian's official releases are not intended to be up-to date distributions. They are housed in the stable package repositories, and meant to be more reliable than current. Debian 4.0 continues this tradition, including software releases that are slightly behind the leading wave, and, with any luck, more reliable. Instead of using the latest 2.6.20.6 kernel, Debian 4.0 defaults to a 2.6.18 kernel, or a 2.6.18-4 kernel for the daring who find the option in the expert installation mode. Similarly, it uses GNOME 2.14 rather than the latest 2.18. Given the increasing maturity of the standard GNU/Linux applications, this choice matters less than it did a few years ago. Still, if only the latest will do for you, be prepared to spend some post-install time upgrading from the testing, unstable, or even experimental repositories.

In keeping with Debian's positioning as a free distribution, you will find that Iceweasel replaces the Firefox Web browser and Icedove the Thunderbird email client. These name changes were brought about by the Mozilla Foundation's efforts to defend its trademark, but do not affect the functionality of the programs in any way. You can still, for instance, use the Firefox extensions site to add functionality to Iceweasel. You may find the name change pointless if you aren't in sympathy with the Debian community's philosophy, but its solution to the trademark problem won't inconvenience you.

Security and software installation

Debian 4.0 includes some default security options, such as not allowing the root user to log in to a desktop. However, if security is a concern to you, then you need to use the expert mode when installing. There, you will find options for enabling SELinux, adding a password to the GRUB boot manager, and whether to use sudo the way Ubuntu does rather than the root password.

For package installation, Debian 4.0 includes Synaptic, which is probably the most user-friendly graphical interfaces for apt-get and dpkg, though it is still more limited than the commands themselves. And, no matter how you install additional software, you should note that, unless you installed in expert mode and chose to permit the use of non-free software on your system, you will not be able to add a Flash player or Adobe Acrobat until you add the contrib and non-free sections to the repositories listed in /etc/apt/sources.list.

Not dead yet

Rumors of Debian's decline or irrelevance have been circulating for some time. Debian 4.0 may not always succeed in following its guiding principles, but, overall, the redefinition that it provides is a successful refutation of these rumors.

Recently, the goal of many distributions seems to have become to be a free version of Windows for users without much understanding of their operating system. Debian counters that trend. Instead of accepting that users prefer to be ignorant, Debian 4.0 treats users as students -- as people who may initially lack knowledge, but who are capable of learning. It's a bold approach, and one that's needed badly enough that Debian may just have found a new purpose -- and, with it, a guarantee of its survival.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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