An open-source truism is: "Nothing is released until it's ready." Well, sometimes that's true and sometimes you have situations like the one with Debian Linux's next release: Debian 5 "Lenny."
First, the good news: Debian 5 really is close to arriving. On January 31st, the Debian developers announced that Lenny's second release candidate was now out. Debian programmers tell me that really should be the last one and that the final version should be out by Valentine's Day.
So, what took them so long? Lots of things, but, as usual with Debian, mostly arguments.
The Debian community, which over the years has had more than its fair share of internal battles over open-source/free software ideology, had to endure yet another battle before Lenny could appear. This time around it was whether proprietary firmware in the form of binary blobs could be in the distribution. Debian Social Contract fundamentalists want nothing to do with proprietary firmware. In particular, they didn't want to include binary firmware in the kernel, which would be loaded into hardware at runtime.
If you're outside the Linux developer world, you might think that deciding whether to include binary blobs or not wouldn't be that big a deal. In Debian circles, however, this is a screaming-fit, jump up and down issue.
To bring the issue to a close, the Debian organization brought it to a vote. This wasn't a simple 'yes, we'll include binary, potentially proprietary, firmware' or "no, we won't" vote.
Debian, in attempting to be fair, uses a voting methodology that only elections wonks could love. Each voter ranks the available options in an order that reflects their preference. So, if you were voting in the U.S. Presidential election, you wouldn't vote for just one candidate. You'd vote, for example, for Obama 1st, Nader 2nd, and McCain 3rd.
To determine a winner, Debian uses the Condorcet Method with Schwartz Sequential Dropping. Sounds likes it's complicated and that it might lead to arguments over which proposition really won doesn't it? You'd be right on both counts.
Debian elections are overseen by the Debian Project secretary. This time around Manoj Srivastava, who had been the secretary since 2001, was accused of deliberately mismanaging the ballot and voting to ensure that binary firmware would be allowed in Lenny. So, Srivastava, conceding "that I have made mistakes with the current set of votes" but taking issue with the "many consider that I have been the epitome of sleaze over the years, manipulating votes for my own ends," resigned. And, who could blame him?
The vote went forward anyway. And, in the end, the winner out of seven options, was, drum-roll please, ""We give priority to the timely release of Lenny over sorting every bit out; for this reason, we will treat removal of source less firmware as a best-effort process, and deliver firmware as part of Debian Lenny as long as we are legally allowed to do so."
Needless to say, this result has not made some Debian developers happy and others, even though 'their side' won have left the distribution. Linux development watchers have seen this kind of Debian internal wars before, for example the 2006 battle over some Debian developers being paid for their work.
Somehow, and don't ask me how, Debian has managed to survive yet another internal civil war, and so I expect Lenny to make out this month. I really don't think that Debian can continue this way.
Debian, while less important in and of itself in Linux circles, is still the foundation for such popular distributions as MEPIS, Mint, Ubuntu, and Xandros. So, I hope, I really do, that Debian's community can become more of a real community again instead of a collection of warring factions. Linux needs Debian's developers' strength; it doesn't need their frequent, bitter arguments.