While Ubuntu has always emphasized usability, Fedora’s focus has been innovation. Now in current beta, Fedora 13 (codenamed Goddard) is no exception.
However, at first Fedora 13 may seem to lack many innovations unique to the distribution as opposed to its component applications. In fact, with many of the improvements and innovations either working behind the scenes or available only if you are specifically aware of them, many of Fedora 13’s enhancements risk being invisible to the average user or even administrator.
Mostly, the invisibility hardly matters, since users still benefit regardless of their awareness. But in one or two cases I suspect that what is unseen may cause some user alarm.
As with most Fedora releases, the Fedora 13 beta is available in a variety of media and spins. However, you should note that, for the beta, the live media are available only as DVD images. The download page promises that CD images will be available for the final release, although the release notes with the beta suggest that the live CD will be replaced by a live USB image instead.
Either way, considering how distributions have increasingly strained to fit on to a CD — for instance, by replacing OpenOffice.org with AbiWord as part of the default install, and omitting The GIMP — the signs are that the days of the Live CD are drawing to a close.
Minor changes are also found in Anaconda, the Fedora installation program. The installer now includes bootfedoraproject.org (BFO), which installs a minimal system then uses a remote server in order to use a specific installation image. Tentative plans are already being made to phase out complete .ISO downloads in favor of BFO. Debian has long proven the usefulness of this system with its network installs, but whether Fedora users will forego the convenience of a complete image remains to be seen.
Another change in Fedora installation is a query about storage devices. According to the release notes, this query is designed for systems with multiple hard drives, exterior drives, or any of the other emerging modern options, and helps to ensure that only the drive targeted for installation is partitioned or formatted. However, why this problem suddenly needs to be addressed is uncertain, and the main result will likely be to confuse users. And telling them that, if they don’t understand the question, they probably want a particular option only gives them one more thing to worry about.
Still another option is to create filesystems using the Btrfs format, which is set up to take a snapshot of the existing system every time new packages are installed. However, this option is frankly experimental, and available only if you start the installers with the option btrfs. Otherwise, the format is unavailable during partitioning. Nor is Btrfs available in the version of GNU parted or GParted that ships with the beta, which means that resizing is impossible if you use the format.
Behind the scenes
If you are upgrading or are a strictly desktop user, you can easily overlook many of the improvements in the Fedora 13 beta. For instance, Yum, Fedora’s package installer, will automatically select the appropriate language packs when you install an application like OpenOffice.org. Similarly, when you plugin a new printer, Fedora 13 automatically offers to install the appropriate printer driver.
This time, too, KDE, which users on the distro mailing list often complain that Fedora neglects, comes in for its share of attention. For those who want the latest in sound systems, the beta includes improvements in Pulse Audio integration for KDE. In addition, PolicyKit, Fedora’s privilege control tool now has an updated Qt interface for KDE.
Other features of the Fedora infrastructure continue to improve. Experimental 3-D Nouveau drivers are now available for NVidia, while improvements in webcam drivers and virtualization, especially for KVM and Xen continue to multiply. Probably, few users will directly notice such improvements, beyond the fact that their regular tasks have become faster, more stable or more efficient.
On the Desktop
The stars — or, at least, the desktops — have aligned reasonably well for Fedora 13. The final release will include GNOME 3.30 and KDE 4.4, both of which are full of new features in their own right. Fedora was less lucky with Xfce, which has delayed the release of its upcoming 4.8 too long for Fedora 13 to ship with it, but is also available in spins of many other interfaces, including LXDE and Moblin.
In contrast, the new applications that are unique to Fedora rather than to the latest desktops are relatively rare. One change is the replacement of gThumb with Shotwell, a lightweight but serviceable image manager that compares favorably in ease of use with F-Spot, but falls far short of KDE’s digiKam, the premier image manager on the modern desktop.
A new application called Déjà Dup brings cloud storage to Fedora for backup services. Déjà sports an outstanding interface that should be navigable by anyone who has used a desktop computer, but Fedora is doing users a disservice by not specifying immediately that the app is backing up files to Amazon S3. After all, for some users (including me) cloud services are as much something to avoid as Mono-based programs.
Users can also download and install Zarafa, a server-side email client whose structure should also be made clearer. However, in Zarafa’s case, any qualms about cloud storage may be eased by the fact that it is supposed to integrate with Microsoft Outlook and provide a replacement for Microsoft Exchange Service, two pieces of functionality that are lacking in KMail and could stand some improvement in Evolution. Moreover, Zarafa is licensed under the Affero GNU General Public License, which means that you can at least peer into the cloud and see the code to which you are entrusting your data.
All the same, potential users should be aware that, if they want to use Zarafa, they will have to download the documentation from the company of the same name. The instructions are not difficult, but will take some time to wade through.
Less controversially, administration receives some boosts with the availability of the Dogtag Certificate System — although it, like Zarafa requires some reading to fully understand or appreciate.
The Fedora 13 beta also includes the GNOME Color Manager, which is intended to help designers and other users who want what they see on screen to match more closely what they print. Able to use color profiles issued by hardware manufacturers, the Color Manager should in theory make the free desktop an easier choice for graphic designers. However, in practice, since such software cannot control the consistency of the ink used by printers, designers will still have to print samples before final copies, which may lead some to wonder if the Color Manager is worth setting up in the first place.
Yet another tool that can be over-looked is the command line version of Fedora’s Net Manager, one of the distribution’s standout applications on the desktop. With half a dozen easily-learned options, the new command nmcli is far easier to use than the standard shell tools ifup and ifdown, and long overdue. After all, if you are administering at the command line, the chances are strong that what you need is a connection to install a few packages that will add the functionality that you need to solve your problem.
2010: The Year of the Commercial Desktop?
The Fedora 13 beta contains more enhancements that many users will ever know. That is not necessarily undesirable, because users will still benefit and many do not care to know.
However, if Fedora 13 is remembered for anything, it may be for the same reason that its rival, Ubuntu’s Lucid Lynx is remembered — as the release in which commercialization became embedded in the free desktop.
For many users, including me, one of the features of the free desktop is its absence of commercialization. You may see an Oracle logo when booting OpenOffice.org, but you do not see heavily branded applications or wizards. Or, if you do, the brands are for free software projects.
Now, with Fedora adding links to Amazon S3 and Zarafa (and Ubuntu to UbuntuOne and its new music store), the two most popular Linux distributions are changing. Instead of being a refuge from commercialization, they are becoming new venues for it.
You can argue that this commercialization makes sense, that the makers of distributions deserve a chance to recoup the money they spend on development. From this perspective, commercialization is simply the price that community-based distributions like Fedora and Ubuntu must endure for the benefits of being connected to for-profit companies.
Perhaps you might want to argue that the companies that back these distributions do not ask for much, and that the trend has (so far) not gone very far.
Yet the fact remains that these links are a jarring intrusion into a world that we have come to take for granted. For some of us, Fedora and Ubuntu may remain centers of innovation, but, for others, completely community-based distros like CentOS and Debian may suddenly become far more attractive.