Debian is certainly the first, large-scale (>1400 developers), global, volunteer created and driven, engineering project whose ambitious concern is nothing less than meeting the needs of all of its users with incisive design effectiveness for an easy to install, general purpose operating system. This is no small task and huge multinationals like IBM have failed to succeed in their comparable efforts (remember OS/2?).
My relevant observations follow:
Debian is a unique, ambitious engineering design and development project that attracts talented people with a strong commitment to help make it better (the fabric of the Debian community is very strong and as far as I can see continues to strengthen).
* Since coordinating this many global volunteers has never been done before (compare the UN: which doesn't really have volunteers!), there is a huge learning and discovery curve to the challenge of figuring out how to organize a large-scale, global project such as Debian to run more and more effectively. Sociology and Management departments the world over will have a field day studying this unique form of organization!
* Since it is a volunteer project, Debian cannot resort to the types of expediencies used at the UN (sanctions, peace-keeping missions, or even invasions, etc.) nor even those used by corporations (bonuses, compensation packages, firings, etc.). So how does Debian debate decision-making: in plain, public view on the mailing lists?
* Very, very messy at times. This is democracy in action! When Congress needs to perform a messy deliberation, they go into closed chambers meetings. A true democracy has to make their deliberations public, so it tends to look a bit messier to anyone accustomed to traditional governance models.
* Humanity has never run a true democracy on this scale before! I think most people are not yet ready for the intense deliberations that a large-scale democratic engineering initiative demands. And therefore Debian has many burnouts. That is a challenge for the Debian community, but its cause is the inexperience we have with this new form of community organization and governance. If it ever became important enough to solve, I'm sure the community would overcome this challenge as it has overcome most of its prior challenges, that is, with a spontaneous individual initiative that sweeps through the community on its merits (not the politics of any one constituent).
* I've been involved with Debian since 2004. It has always been this intense, this chaotic. But because of its ever growing success, more people are taking a look now. To fully appreciate Debian, one must learn to understand and appreciate the value of free, unfettered deliberations in creating sound decisions (have you looked closely at Debian's policy: it is the polished result of these deliberations (er, flame wars) and it is a marvel unmatched in the computer industry!)
* Finally, the infighting shows the passions of Debian's committed volunteers. Frankly, I would be more worried if there were no flame wars and no controversies. That would be the death of Debian.