When it began, Debian was the only distribution that was open for every developer and user to contribute their work. It remains the most 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
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.
The Debian Project grew slowly at first and released its first 0.9x versions in 1994 and 1995. The first ports to other architectures were begun in 1995, and the first 1.x version of Debian was released in 1996. In 1996, Bruce Perens replaced Ian Murdock as the project leader. At the suggestion of fellow developer Ean Schuessler, he guided the editing process of the Debian Social Contract and the Debian Free Software Guidelines, defining fundamental commitments for the development of the distribution. He also initiated the creation of the legal umbrella organization Software in the Public Interest.
Bruce Perens left in 1998 before the release of the first glibc-based Debian, 2.0. The Project proceeded to elect new leaders and made two more 2.x releases, each including more ports and more packages. APT was deployed during this time and the first port to a non-Linux kernel, Debian GNU/Hurd, was started as well. The first Linux distributions based on Debian, Corel Linux and Stormix's Storm Linux, were started in 1999. Though no longer developed, these distributions were the first of many distributions based on Debian.
In late 2000, the Project made major changes to archive and release management, reorganizing software archive processes with new "package pools" and creating a testing branch as an ongoing, relatively stable staging area for the next release. In 2001, developers began holding an annual conference called Debconf with talks and workshops for developers and technical users.