Fedora or Ubuntu? That is a question that Linux users are asking with increasing frequency.
The question is not random -- the two distributions have consistently topped the downloads on Distrowatch for the last two years. Read Fedora and Ubuntu mail forums, and users who despair of one are constantly announcing their intention to try the other. Although other distributions, including Linux Mint, openSUSE, and Mandriva, offer comparable features, for better or worse Fedora and Ubuntu are widely viewed as the desktop distributions of choice.
Unsurprisingly, you can find dozens of comparisons of the two on the Internet. However, except for one posted on PolishLinux.org, few answers are detailed enough to be of much use. And since the one on PolishLinux.org was made in 2006, its at least six versions behind the current releases (Fedora 12 and Ubuntu 9.10). So a new extended answer seems overdue.
The only trouble is, providing a definitive answer to the question is not as easy as it used to be -- a discovery that, if nothing else, suggests the current state of desktop Linux.
Fedora, formerly known as Fedora Core, is sponsored mainly by Red Hat. In fact, many of those who work full-time on Fedora are Red Hat employees, and the Fedora Leader and four of the eight members of the board of directors are appointed by Red Hat.
This connection has caused some critics to dismiss Fedora as a beta version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Yet while it is true that releases of Red Hat Enterprise Linux are snapshots of Fedora, the truth is that Fedora largely manages its own affairs.
Similarly, Ubuntu is the community arm of Canonical Software. Both were founded by Mark Shuttleworth, who jokingly refers to himself as Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life. General direction tends to be decided by the Technical Board, which tends to be dominated by members who have served several years and are Canonical employees. However, as with Fedora, daily decisions are mostly left to community-based teams.
The Fedora desktop
In the last five years, both Fedora and Ubuntu have attracted large and rapidly growing communities, often governed by codes of conduct and having their own in-person meetings -- FUDCon for Fedora and the Ubuntu Developer Summit for Ubuntu. Members of both are also active in other free and open source software meetings, especially GNOME's GUADEC.
In short, Fedora and Ubuntu have evolved surprisingly similar structures. The main difference lies in their goals: Ubuntu aims to provide "an open-source alternative to Windows and Office," and is currently focusing on usability improvements, while Fedora's goal is to create "a Linux-based operating system that showcases the latest in free and open source software." (FOSS)
At times, these goals leave both open to criticism. Some suggest that Ubuntu's eagerness to make changes means that the distribution may make changes without ensuring that the changes are spread throughout the FOSS community. Similarly, users sometimes accuse Fedora's emphasis on innovation as being made at the expense of stability.
Most users install Ubuntu and Fedora from Live CDs that require minimal input from users and complete in well under half an hour, including some post-install configuration. Should you have problems with either one's installer, you can use them in text mode. Ubuntu also boasts an alternate installer that is actually Debian's standard one, which gives fine-grained control over every aspect of installation.
The two distributions also include other variations, including ones for USB drives and remixes or spins --customized installation disk images, often ones for less popular desktop choices such as LXDE or Sugar. Ubuntu also offers WUBI (Ubuntu Installer for Windows), which installs on to an existing Windows partition and chooses an operating system as your computer turns on.
Fedora and Ubuntu alike are centered on the GNOME desktop. However, each also includes packages for KDE and Xfce4. In fact, Ubuntu has separate distributions for theses other desktops called Kubuntu and Xubuntu. Both distributions, especially Fedora, are sometimes said to neglect these alternative desktops by focusing too much on GNOME.
Apart from themes and desktop wallpaper, Fedora and Ubuntu's default GNOME desktops differ only in minor ways. A few tools are in different positions, and Fedora installs with Abiword instead of the GIMP, while Ubuntu includes F-Spot and Xsane by default. But for the most part, the differences are so slight that twenty minutes of adding packages to each would cancel them out.