Debian is the the quietest big Linux distro. I see hourly posts on Distrowatch, Slashdot and Digg about the latest builds of Ubuntu and SUSE, and even Mark Shuttleworth’s wearing of a KDE t-shirt is considered news. I presume that things are fine inside Debian and that no gnus is good gnus, but also I believe, as Oscar Wilde said: “What’s worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
I’ve written a number of posts about Ubuntu and Debian on this website in the last few weeks, saying that: in principle I should be running Debian, that Ubuntu is too small a team for the size of their customer base and buglist, questioning the size of the fork Ubuntu has made, questioning whether Debian is stagnant, etc. I decided to see if I could test any of these assumptions, so I grabbed the latest Etch bits from the Debian-testing tree and installed it on a 2-year-old Sony VAIO laptop.
Even though I had grabbed just a daily build, the very nice Debian installer recognized my hardware, it generally installed and ran like a champ. However, my hopes and expectations for Linux in 2006 are greater:
- The mouse pointer was very slow; it took 15 swipes to move the mouse across the screen and tweaking the speed of the mouse in the Gnome UI didn’t help. There is a bug in Debian’s database which suggested a workaround and that the problem isn’t specific to Debian, but I haven’t seen this problem on the other distros. I plugged in a USB mouse and kept going.
- My ipw 2100 didn’t work. I know there is a firmware freedom issue, but the drivers ship with the kernel, and they work on other distros. I just plugged in an Ethernet cable, which worked right away, and kept going.
- Menus: There are simple Ubuntu-style menus, and then a deeply nested set of Debian menus. I’m not sure if this is part a transition, but I do think they should ship with one nice simple default set.
- There is a a lot of crufty old apps which get installed by default: mutt, sh, tcsh, xeyes, etc., etc. Given that it is so easy to install software, even if you assume that Debian is for experts, why not ship the prettiest and most popular and perhaps put the old command-line stuff into a meta-package?
- I tried to hibernate and received an error message saying that it didn’t appear software support was compiled into the kernel. Neither was any support compiled into the UI for me to choose hibernate from the logout menu.
- Sound didn’t work. Totem-gstreamer would crash saying “failed to connect to the d-bus daemon.”
- Everything is built against gstreamer .08 even though .10 is in the repositories; I presume this is being worked on.
- Apache is 2.0, latest is 2.2
- Drupal is 4.5.8, latest is 4.7
- GCC 4.0.3, latest is 4.1
- OpenOffice 2.0.1, latest is 2.0.2
- Tomboy 0.3.3, latest is 0.3.5. No F-Spot or Beagle
- No Ekiga
- Tried to install the free ATI 3-d drivers (the proprietary ones I wish I had the freedom to install are nowhere to be found) but it couldn’t install because it complained about missing xserver-xorg-core 1:0.99.0-1, which it said wasn’t installable.
- I installed the Xfce Window Manager which worked fine, but I didn’t see the application menu for starting any apps, like Xubuntu has.
- Lots of little things: the “Add to Panel…” dialog box is lamer than the one that ships with Dapper. Sorry I don’t have a screenshot. The dialog to change the desktop background had repaint issues.
- On the good side, Debian ships with a more sane set of fonts than Ubuntu, which has a pile of international fonts, causing my few Western fonts to get lost.
After that I gave up. I know this is an incremental build and I could get more or perhaps even all things working, but I feel like Debian will need to do more than fix the RC bugs to keep up with the other distros and tempt me.
I know some people will read this and say that I don’t understand Debian, or that Debian shouldn’t be easy to use. Whatever. Linux is growing in double digits, but not Debian. And if you aren’t growing, you are shrinking through attrition. (I wonder if Debian is firing on all cylinders–I’d be interested to know how many of Debian’s developers do less than 4 hours a week of work.) I did a subsequent install of OpenSUSE, and was very impressed with both its stability and polish, so it isn’t just Ubuntu which thinks that the last 5% is important. It should be no surprise that Debian is only #7 on the distrowatch list.
I also didn’t see that Debian is benefiting as much from Ubuntu as I thought it would. Power management features, and many new packages and new versions of code in Ubuntu have not made it upstream. Perhaps this is work Debian has signed up to do but hasn’t done, but it does suggest that things might work better if more work was done directly in Debian; code is flowing downstream much better than upstream right now.
I wish Debian was trying a bit harder for my affection. I’ve boasted that I’ll probably be ready to maintain a Debian box in the Etch timeframe, but now I’m not so sure. Ubuntu has lots of bugs, but I don’t think more than a handful are regressions. It appears that Ubuntu has all the advantage of Debian with no new disadvantages.
Finally, while I do see that Debian has given Ubuntu a great base and that Ubuntu could probably be helping Debian more, it seems fair to say that Ubuntu has taken Debian and polished it up quite a bit and they deserve more props for that than I and many others in the Debian community have given them. Of course, when Canonical adds another 24 people, Ubuntu will really rock…
P.S. Some people are angry that I dare criticize Debian when its not ready, but I want Debian to succeed, this build is the culmination of 12 months of work, with 6 months remaining, and I calls ’em as I sees ’em; that’s why you guys pay me the big bucks!