Debian founder Ian Murdock

  • Ian Murdock has died. You may not have heard of him, and the circumstances of his death are not yet clear. Whatever the context of this specific tragedy turn out to reveal, the general legacy of Murdock's pioneering work is unambiguous. As founder of the Debian project, Murdock helped to create something that prefigured the very notion of Open Source; that offered a distributed "app store" decades before it was the twinkle in any proprietary eye; and, most importantly, helped to found the world's first properly universal, free, open, operating-system distribution upon which we at Positive base everything we do. His legacy lives on in the very name of the project he began, a portmanteau of his and his then partner's names: Debian. Positive has relied on Debian almost since our birth, and we have put our money where our mouth is to support it, as the founding sponsor of its "Long Term Support" project. It is sometimes easy for those outside of technical communities to belittle such technological developments and progress as merely technocratic: at best, perhaps, they're seen as a layer of new soil into which those perceived as more "creative" might plant their more "worthy" crop. The technocrats themselves are not given the benefit of any inherent cultural or progressive doubt. People like Ian show how shallow is this conception. The notion of the geek merely concerned with the alignment of their train-set does a disservice to the philosophically and politically engaged men and women whose visions, again and again, shape the societies in which we live. Until Debian, operating systems and collections of software (whether proprietary or Free) were packaged, distributed and maintained by separate individuals or companies. The organisation in question would select the software it decided should be a part of its offering and they would then take on the responsibility of patching, securing and updating that collection of software. The traditional Unix distributions did this. Microsoft did this from DOS onwards. So did Apple. But in each case, the disadvantages of relying on a single organisation to take on such a burden became obvious. Not only did the schedule and scope of any fixes, updates and enhancements rely on the haphazard commercial priorities of the organisation, but the scope of the distribution was necessarily limited to the small collection of applications and services to which that organisation had a right. Whilst an upgrade to a newer version of Windows might bring you some new services, what about the whole collection of software "islands" that you'd installed previously on top of the older version of the operating system? Many of these islands would now be rendered inaccessible by newer libraries, newer security requirements and so forth. Your only option in this case would be to abandon those "islands" or to seek individual updates, which may or may not be available, for each separate app under the aegis of each separate software fiefdom. To an extent, the proprietary realm made this all but inevitable. Each app relied on a different proprietary licence, based upon a different business model and the specific commercial needs of its creator. To upgrade and update everything as a seamless whole was not therefore merely technically improbable, it was commercially impossible and legally forbidden! Even today, with all the app stores in the world, each app remains a grudging passenger on your system rather than a coherent participant in its "society". Of course, the world of Free Software, with its liberal licences and its encouragement to share and agglomerate software, removes the legal impediment to a more coherent organisation of collections of such software; but early efforts in the GNU/Linux world to distribute such software generally aped the traditional proprietary schemes. It took someone with the forethought of Ian Murdock to realise that the legal and political opportunities opened up by Free Software could extend beyond the individual apps that enjoyed these freedoms. Crucially, Murdock envisioned freedom as not merely a property of an individual app, but as a fundamental character of a wider ecosystem. And this vision is where he leapfrogged the walled-garden "App Store" even before any such thing existed. As such, Murdock's realisation was not some mere technological suggestion. It was, indeed, a cultural vision lucidly set out in the Debian Manifesto. The Manifesto was no mere technocrat's white paper. It was a moral proclamation. It rightly railed against "unacceptable behaviour being rewarded" and instead hoped for a distribution "based on the needs and wants of the users rather than the needs and wants of the constructor". To service this vision, a whole collection of technical innovations gushed out: the ".deb" packages, the Debian Package Manager, the Debian Policy guide, the eventual emergence of the "apt-get" systematic update program and all the social and political tools necessary to allow discrete, individual package managers nevertheless to be able to servce the collective coherently. The exhortation to collectivisation is, of course, both exquisitely political and historically fraught. Ian was thus one of the very rare individuals whose visions of collective endeavour did not end in tragedy or worse. He had a nuanced understanding of how to balance the rights and expectations of the users, the developers and the maintainers. His modest "separation of powers" remains the bulwark against any aspect of the Debian project toppling any other. He envisioned an accommodation subtle enough to ensure that individual interests did not poison the stability of the collective, however much heat might be released by the inevitable creative friction. The historical rareness of crafting such collective stability, again, cannot be overstated (hence jokes about anarcho-syndicalist communes and so forth). But Ian did it. Today, the Debian Project is a byword for reliability and stability, of interoperable components and flexibility that has taken it to watches, banks and the Space Station. And it has provided the base for derivatives like Ubuntu. Certainly, Debian has had its arguments and its flame wars, its controversies and its eternal grumblers, but it remains one of the few top-flight GNU/Linux distributions in the world. It is, indeed, a testament to the vitality of the GNU/Linux universe that it has allowed two economically and philosophically distinct distributions to thrive: Red Hat, a multi-billion dollar traditional commercial venture, on the one hand, and Debian, a non-centralised radical collective on the other. Both are considered the essential targets for any software produced for the GNU/Linux platform. In paying tribute to Ian's life and his most important work, it's essential that we move beyond seeing Debian as a "mere" technological endeavour; the project deserves recognition from journalists, scholars, and other "opinion-makers" for the full, astonishing scope of that endeavour. Certainly, Debian marks at least as radical a social experiment as Wikipedia (and, indeed, Wikipedia runs upon it), but you won't find an NPR or BBC Radio Four documentary about it any day soon. But Ian Murdock's astonishing creation will live on: a small glimmer in our present of the post-scarcity "Star Trek" economy of our future. And for that, the future will remember Ian fondly indeed.