Mark Shuttleworth has written an interesting post about Ubuntu release dates . He claims that free software distributions are better able to meet release dates than proprietary OSs because they are not doing upstream development. The evidence that free software distributions generally do a reasonable job of meeting release dates (and Ubuntu does an excellent job) is clear.
But the really interesting part of his post is where he offers to have Ubuntu collaborate with other distributions on release dates. He states that if two out of Red Hat (presumably Enterprise Linux), Novell (presumably SLES), and Debian will commit to the same release date (within one month) and (possibly more importantly) to having the same versions of major components then he will make Ubuntu do the same.
This is a very significant statement. From my experience working in the Debian project and when employed by Red Hat I know that decisions about which versions of major components to include are not taken lightly, and therefore if the plan is to include a new release of a major software project and that project misses a release date then it forces a difficult decision about whether to use an older version or delay the release. For Ubuntu to not merely collaborate with other distributions but to instead follow the consensus of two different distributions would be a massive compromise. But I agree with Mark that the benefits to the users are clear.
I believe that the Debian project should align it’s release cycles with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I believe that RHEL is being released in a very sensible manner and that the differences of opinion between Debian and Red Hat people about how to manage such things are small. Note that it would not be impossible to have some variations of version numbers of components but still stick mostly to the same versions.
If Debian, Ubuntu, and RHEL released at about the same time with the same versions of the kernel, GCC, and major applications and libraries then it would make it much easier for users who want to port software between distributions and run multiple distributions on the same network or the same hardware.
The Debian Social Contract  states that “Our priorities are our users and free software“. I believe that by using common versions across distributions we would help end-users in configuring software and maintaining networks of Linux systems running different distributions, and also help free software developers by reducing the difficulty in debugging problems.
It seems to me that the best way of achieving the goal that Mark advocates (in the short term at least) is for Debian to follow Red Hat’s release cycle. I think that after getting one release with common versions out there we could then discuss how to organise cooperation between distributions.
I also believe that a longer support cycle would be a good thing for Debian. I’m prepared to do the necessary work for the packages that I maintain and would also be prepared to do some of the work in other areas that is needed (EG back-porting security fixes).