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Every few months, a pundit asks, “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” The implication, of course, is that it hasn’t been — at least, not until very recently. Yet those who actually use a GNU/Linux desktop know that the operating system has been ready for some years. Considering that much of the early design of desktops like KDE and GNOME were based on what was happening in Windows, that readiness is hardly surprising. In fact, development of the GNU/Linux desktop has reached the point today where it not only equals the Windows Vista desktop, but frequently surpasses it.
Of course, Vista has an advantage: it comes already installed on most systems. By contrast, pre-installations of GNU/Linux, such as Dell’s Ubuntu systems, are still rare. However, that is not a feature of the operating systems so much as a marketing coup. Anyone who has tried to install a copy of Windows from scratch will find it no easier than installing a GNU/Linux distribution. Both Windows and GNU/Linux distributions now feature graphical install programs and first-time boot wizards with detailed instructions that any intermediate user can understand. Both, too, have the same basic level of success in recognizing hardware on workstations (laptops, with their wireless cards that have Windows-only drivers can still be a problem for GNU/Linux). At any rate, installation is such a small part of users’ experience (assuming they experience it at all) that it can shouldn’t be over-emphasized.
In addition, in making a comparison, you need to specify not only the GNU/Linux desktop — there are several, in case you didn’t know — but also the distribution. There are hundreds. Also, to make the comparison meaningful, you need to choose a distribution aimed at the desktop, rather than one designed for users that may have a less fully-featured desktop.
These days, the comparison is often done with Ubuntu. However, other distributions hold up equally well. A case in point is Fedora 7, which defaults to a GNOME 2.18 desktop that has been customized for ease of use. Based on a wide array of criteria, an in-depth look reveals that (like a growing number of GNU/Linux distributions) Fedora 7 takes second place to nothing — not even Windows Vista.
Desktop look and feel
Fedora’s and Vista’s desktops are similar enough that average users should be able to switch from one to the other with a minimum of disorientation. Both include a menu and panels, and a central space for adding icons. Both desktops have a default file manager in which it is easier to move around a user’s files and desktop rather than the overall directory system. Both desktops, too, show a proliferation of pop-up notifications that seem to appear at the most inconvenient times possible unless you turn them off.
Beyond these basics, the Fedora desktop features a number of innovations that demonstrate that it has moved beyond copying Windows. Instead of placing the menu in the bottom left — an illogical positioning that begun solely to differentiate Windows 95 from the Mac desktop — Fedora’s GNOME desktop places the menu in the top left, where new users would start to scan for features. To make this menu more user-friendly, it lists only core programs, and tends to list them by function rather than by program name, so that you will find a listing, for instance, for Text Editor rather than Gedit. Unfortunately, this setup has the effect of hiding some programs from users — although, if they are aware of a program, they can add it to the menu via the AlaCarte menu editor. Separate menus are also given for Places that users might want to move to, and for System, where customization, administration, and logout items are stored.
By contrast, the Vista menu remains resolutely down in the bottom left corner, where it is easy to overlook. By default, it lists nine recently used programs. If you want more, you either have to click the All Programs tab, which gives you a list of programs that requires scrolling, or use the Search field, which limits you to programs you already know about. Most users, I suspect, are happy to right-click the menu and revert to the Classical look that includes all the menus, but lists programs by names more often than functions. The default menu also includes settings similar to Fedora’s Place and System menus, but is less well-organized and easier to overlook as you navigate the intricacies of the needlessly complicated default menu.
Fedora also has an advantage in its use of panels. Both Fedora and Vista feature have panels that can be moved or resized, although few Windows users are likely aware of the fact, since both operations are done in Vista via a mouse rather than a settings panel. Fedora features two — one reserved for menus and icons for utilities and programs, and another used mostly as a taskbar for opened programs. This arrangement makes for much less cluttered panels, though even when all the functions are compacted on a single panel, GNOME’s icons are much easier to read than Vista’s.
Vista also features a side panel for applets, which was likely borrowed from GNU/Linux desktops. However, this panel is much less versatile than a panel in Fedora. For one thing, it takes up most of the extra space gained from using a wide screen monitor, with one-inch square icons. For another, it has less than a dozen applets — or “gadgets” — compared to the several dozen available with GNOME by default and the additional several dozen that you can install. Nor can the side panel be installed at the top or bottom of the screen, the way that GNOME’s general purpose panels can.
Another noticeable difference is that, while Vista’s programs include links for doing specific tasks, Fedora stays with the old standard of interfaces listing settings. Fedora’s standard can be confusing to new users, but so can Vista’s — especially if the questions don’t include what you need to do. Either can require frequent reference to the online help.
However, the biggest advantage that Fedora has over Vista is its use of virtual workspaces or desktops. These workspaces take up some memory, so most users will want to keep them at the default four. But they are a convenient way to expand your desktop space, and far quicker to configure than dual monitors.
Despite some small inconveniences, Fedora’s GNOME desktop continues to innovate. By contrast, Vista’s desktop seems a step backwards from early Windows desktops, and many of its innovations seem either timid or else made for their own sake rather than to empower users.
Desktop customization is extremely popular regardless of the operating system, and both Fedora and Vista cater to the demand. On either desktop, you can change the background color or image, as well as changing the fonts, screen savers, themes, and preferred programs, or adding assistive technologies.
Yet the do-it-yourself impulse is far stronger among GNU/Linux users than among Vista users, so it is only natural that, where Vista offers half a dozen screensavers, Fedora offers dozens. Where a Windows taskbar stubbornly remains the same color, and a side panel is limited to changing the opacity of individual gadgets’ icons, Fedora’s panels can use a color or an image as a background. And where a Vista taskbar is limited in what it can hold and where, Fedora’s panels can store an icon for virtually any application, and position them any place you prefer. You can even add your own menus in the shape of drawers full of icons.
In fact, the options on Fedora’s GNOME desktop are so exact that they would be overwhelming for new users if they did not use defaults that are adequate for most users. Advanced users, if they choose, can go into the minutiae of choosing the widgets that windows use. Or such details as how a window opens or whether clicking the title bar maximizes a window or scrolls up the window. From one perspective, this degree of customization is a series of trivialities, but they have the advantage of ensuring that you can work exactly the way you prefer.
Default software selection
Vista’s Home Premium Plus edition (which I used for this article), comes with a small selection of desktop utilities, such as a calculator, text editor, and screen capture program. Pre-installed, on most machines it also comes with a sixty-day trial version of MS Office, rather than the full version that earlier Windows operating systems included. Depending on the manufacturer, a new machine may also bundle third party software such as Norton Internet Security, or hardware helpers such as webcams and LightScribe drives. Quickplay and Acrobat reader are also included.
These offerings are minimalist compared to what Fedora installs by default. Besides the operating system and the accompanying desktop utilities, Fedora includes an overwhelming selection of software. A Live CD install includes AbiWord and Gnumeric, two lightweight office programs, but OpenOffice.org can be installed within ten minutes, given a high speed Internet connection. Programs included in the initial install include Scribus, a professional-quality desktop publishing program; the GIMP, a PhotoShop-like graphics program, and dozens of other programs — all of which fit into less than half the twenty or so gigabytes that Windows and its bundled programs occupy on the hard drive.
The only drawback to Fedora’s offerings is that some programs that are not released under a free software license, such as software to use a LightScribe drive, have to be hunted down and installed separately. Still, given the increasingly first-rate quality of the leading free software available today, at a conservative estimate installing Fedora could easily save you several thousand dollars in software, even on a single workstation.
Software installation and updates
Fedora and Vista both include automatic update systems. Vista includes individual ones for the operating system, Java, and — if it’s bundled — Norton Internet Security, while Fedora’s updates are available from a single applet. Nor, in an acknowledgement of the typical GNU/Linux user’s preference for keeping control of their system, does Fedora update automatically by default. That choice may seem less convenient, but with a competent administrator, it’s far safer than automatic updates — if nothing else, administrators might want to wait to hear more about the reliability of updates before they install them.
Vista does users no service by declaring that their system is unsafe if automatic updating is turned off. Such warnings may stampede users into major system upgrades that disable working parts or expose them to other vulnerabilities. Based on past performance, Vista’s automatic updates may also give users a false sense of security, since Windows patches have frequently failed to address all known vulnerabilities on a system.
Like any GNU/Linux distribution, Fedora also features on-the-fly installation of free software from its repositories. With Vista’s Windows Marketplace, Microsoft has tried to copy this feature, but with proprietary products. Windows Marketplace seems to offer some discounts, but the fact that only proprietary software is available makes it less desirable than Fedora’s Yum installation tool. Moreover, although Windows Marketplace has several hundred programs, Fedora’s repository offers over six thousand, many of them equal or superior to their proprietary counterparts.
At the turn of the millennium, GNU/Linux administration was conducted from the command line. Expert users might still prefer the command line, which is generally more powerful and versatile than a desktop program can ever be. All the same, Fedora’s GNOME desktop offers a full range of administrative tools in its System menu. Screen resolutions, keyboard shortcuts, system date and time, locales, network connections, printing, sound card configuration — all can now be handled from the desktop in routine circumstances. If troubles occur, you can also view GNU/Linux’s extensive log files in the hopes of tracking down the problem. These tools could do with a uniform interface of the sort found in the KDE Control Center, but are generally adequate for the job.
Despite such recent advances, Fedora’s administration tools are still lagging behind those in Vista’s control panel. In particular, Vista wins out with controls for backup, tablets, and, even more basically, font management. You can download tools for these purposes in Fedora, and even add them to the Administration menu, but Fedora fails to install them by default. The GNOME desktop’s administrative tools are rapidly closing the gap on Window’s, but currently they’re still running slightly behind.
Security is supposedly Vista’s strong suit over earlier versions of Windows. Yet this claim is hard to take seriously when the default permissions for files are still wide open access to all users. Similarly, although Vista includes warnings against doing daily work in an administrative account, the first boot wizard creates only an administrative account — and does not insist on a password. Meanwhile, password hints continue to be visible to everyone at the login screen.
The bundling of Internet Norton Security is a promising reactive step, combining a firewall and anti-virus software, but the security architecture of Vista still seems questionable when it neglects so many basics. Asking for confirmation whenever an administrative task is done is hardly a significant increase in security.
Fedora takes another path, following GNU/Linux’s tradition of firmly separating administrative and everyday user accounts, each of them with a password at least six letters long. You can use a simple password, but Fedora will warn that it is simple. Permissions are also tighter than Vista, though they could easily be more restrictive, allowing only the creator of a file any access to them.
Fedora’s firewall tool is comparable to Symantec’s, if not quite so easy to use. However, the real standout in Fedora is SELinux, one of the most comprehensive security programs available on any platform. Novices can simply set SELinux to “enabled” or “permissive,” but for those who want to know exactly what they’re doing, Fedora also includes a detailed graphical tool for configuring dozens of security settings. Using SELinux exacts a performance cost of about five percent, but even with that hit, Fedora remains noticeably faster than Vista — to say nothing of more secure.
For all the efforts to make GNU/Linux’s desktops more user-friendly — a goal that often translates into making them more like Windows — the design philosophy in Fedora remains noticeably different than Vista’s.
In Vista, efforts to simplify user experience generally translate into isolating users from what they’re doing, and giving them fewer options. Unix diehards might say that Fedora and GNOME are doing the same thing. However, the truth seems more complicated. Fedora 7 adds a veneer to the GNU/Linux desktop that provides much of the ease of use of a Windows operating system, but beneath it, the traditional Unix concerns for security and for users doing things their own way remains. While users can ignore these concerns, especially when just starting out, as they become more experienced they may welcome the added control.
Fedora and its default GNOME desktop may still have a few lessons to learn from Vista, particularly in the selection of administration tools. Yet in terms of almost everything that’s important to users, Fedora and GNOME have overtaken Vista and are rapidly pulling away from it.
As the addition of the side panel shows, it is Windows that is starting to learn from GNU/Linux. The days when the situation was the other way around are over.