Fedora 13 Beta: The Seen and (Troubling) Unseen

Fedora 13, like Ubuntu's Lucid Lynx, is the release in which commercialization became embedded in the Linux desktop.
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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.

Next Page: 2010: The Year of the Commercial Desktop?

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Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Linux desktop, open source tools, Fedora

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