The Debian Project is a worldwide group of volunteers who endeavor to produce an operating system distribution that is composed entirely of free software. The principle product of the project to date is the Debian GNU/Linux software distribution, which includes the Linux operating system kernel, and thousands of prepackaged applications. Various processor types are supported to one extent or another, including Intel i386 and above, Alpha, ARM, Motorola 68k, MIPS, PowerPC, Sparc, and UltraSparc, HP PA-RISC, IBM S/390 and Hitachi SuperH.
Debian is in stark contrast to the Linuxes we've seen thus far in that it is not produced by any company, yet is development and maintained via community effort much like the Linux kernel itself. Because of this, many persons feel that Debian is one of the last pure Linux distros.
The one item that really sets Debian apart is their commitment to Free Software. The Debian community has set forth a [Social Contract] which specifies exactly what they mean by "Free Software" and what they intend to do for the community. This contract includes guidelines which specify what and how a piece of software is accepted into Debian. Because of their commitment to Free Software, you will notice that Debian actually has "Free" and "Non-Free" sections to their software base. Note that "Free" and "Non-Free" here do not refer to cost, but to Freedom.
The Debian Project was officially founded by Ian Murdock on August 16th, 1993. At that time, the whole concept of a "distribution" of Linux was new. The creation of Debian was sponsored by the FSF's GNU project for one year (November 1994 to November 1995).
Debian was meant to be carefully and conscientiously put together, and to be maintained and supported with similar care. It started as a small, tightly-knit group of Free Software hackers, and gradually grew to become a large, well-organized community of developers and users.
Debian is the only distribution that is open for every developer and user to contribute their work. It is the only significant distributor of Linux that is not a commercial entity. It is the only large project with a constitution, social contract, and policy documents to organize the project. Debian is also the only distribution which is "micro packaged" using detailed dependency information regarding inter-package relationships to ensure system consistency across upgrades.
To achieve and maintain high standards of quality, Debian has adopted a rich set of policies and procedures for packaging and delivering software. These are backed up by tools, automation, and documentation implementing all of Debian's key elements in an open and visible way.
Ian named Debian after himself and his wife, Debra.