For several years, users' experience in Linux has depended more on the desktop than the distribution. Fedora 14 and Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick), conveniently released within a few weeks of each other, do little to challenge that assertion. Changes are occurring in the back ends, but, from a users' perspective, both these recent releases are hard to review because the interfaces have barely changed.
However, comparing these recent releases does show some distinct differences in emphasis that might affect your decision about which one to use. The difference is not just that Ubuntu is more commercial, but that it also modifies what it ships far more than Fedora, and, increasingly, tends to be developed with the assumptions that users will be content to work in the ways that the software dictates.
As contemporaries, Fedora 14 and Ubuntu 10.10 provide an apt comparison. In past releases, the two distributions have been the most downloaded distributions on Distrowatch -- although Ubuntu usually has 20-40% more downloads -- and there is no reason to think these latest releases will be much different.
Although other distributions such as Mint, openSUSE, and Debian are downloaded almost as often as Fedora on Distrowatch, Ubuntu and Fedora remain consistently the most popular distributions.
Probably, too, they are the largest distribution projects in terms of participants as well, despite the obvious differences in branding, default desktops and software selection.
Both Fedora and Ubuntu show strong efforts at branding. Fedora uses its logo to indicate progress at bootup, and has a tradition of producing new artwork for each release. Usually, the artwork is airbrushed and dramatic, and does not stray far from Fedora's standard blue theme.
Fedora also has a tradition for naming each release: each new code name must have some sort of free association with the previous one. Yet this tradition has never caught the popular imagination of the free software community. For instance, how many people know that Laughlin is Fedora 14's code name, let alone its relation to Goddard, Fedora 13's code name?
By contrast, Ubuntu's habit of alliterative code names consisting of an adjective followed by an animal in alphabetical sequence is so well-known that it is eagerly anticipated, and the subject of endless jokes.
In fact, as might be expected from a commercial company, Ubuntu brands far more extensively than Fedora or any other community distribution. Ubuntu's current Light theme is not only the result of extensive effort, but heavily color-coded to reflect subject both on and off the desktop, although most of its subtleties probably escape the average user (as they do me).
Both Fedora and Ubuntu have long since taken to omitting references to Linux on their home pages. However, in the last release or two, Ubuntu has gone even further and taken to emphasizing its name on the desktop.
For instance, the main package manager is now Ubuntu Software Center, as opposed to Fedora's Add/Remove Software. Similarly, Ubuntu's cloud services are called Ubuntu One -- a name which not only has Orwellian overtones of Airstrip One, but also makes its purpose obscure in the menus, making it an exception to Ubuntu's general emphasis on usability.
Ubuntu's branding is still mild compared to that of Windows. All the same, it can be jarring to long-time users of Linux, where such commercialism is still relatively uncommon. Yet perhaps such branding is the necessary price for profit -- and, of course, most of Ubuntu's branding's, like most of Fedora's, can be removed if you prefer.
The Default Desktops
The latest Fedora and Ubuntu releases are both based on GNOME 2.32. Neither has changed much from the last half dozen releases.
Broadly speaking, they look much the same, both sporting a top and bottom panel and the familiar Applications-Places-System trio of menus in the top left. Many of the differences are minor, such as two virtual workspaces in Fedora compared to Ubuntu's four, and the placement of the package tool at the bottom of the Applications menu in Ubuntu, but at the top of the System -> Administration menu in Fedora. The largest difference in the placement of these standard elements is that Fedora's Application menu includes a System Tools sub-menu, whose contents Ubuntu shifts over to the System -> Administration.
However, as you look more closely, differences start to emerge. By default, Fedora places icons for basic applications on the top panel, while Ubuntu only adds Firefox to the panel. Moreover, once you install, Fedora shows three desktop icons, while Ubuntu shows none. These are small differences, but you can infer an acceptance of desktop icons as a possible user preference in Fedora, and a tendency to avoid them in favor of menus and panels in Ubuntu.
The icons that Ubuntu does allow are confined to the panels. The four corners of Ubuntu's desktop have been associated with specific functions for several releases now: starting at the top left and moving clockwise, they are the main menu, an exit menu, trash, and an applet for hiding all windows to show the desktop.
This arrangement makes for consistency, but the Trash icon, for one, is much harder to use when it is reduced in size to fit on the lower panel than when it is on the desktop. Similarly, the separation of the exit menu from the three standard menus in the top panel can make it hard to find, especially for those familiar in GNOME from other distros.
In fact, the more you use Ubuntu, the more its modifications from standard GNOME begin to add up. Ubuntu's Indicator Applet, which replaces the Notification Area in Fedora and other standard implementations of GNOME, has just enough differences in behavior to be distracting, although it does seem less intrusive once you get used to it.
Other changes from standard GNOME include Ubuntu-only tools for centralized management of sound and social networking accounts, which are either a convenience or a needless frill, depending on whether you see a need for them.
The same ambiguity surrounds the infamous placement of title bar buttons on the left instead of the traditional right. Adjusting to the change is not difficult, but, if you are used to a distribution like Fedora that makes fewer alterations to GNOME, then you might wonder whether the attention given to such matters is worth any gain in usability. To be fair, though, opinions might change when the newly-freed space on the right are filled with the forthcoming window indicators.
Software Selections and Interface Selections
Being contemporaries, Fedora 14 and Ubuntu Maverick show only minor differences in standard software. Both use a 2.6.35 kernel, and are based on GNOME 2.32. Productivity software, such as Firefox (3.6) and OpenOffice.org (3.2) are also more or less equivalent in the two distros, give or take the occasional minor update or two.
However, as in previous releases, Ubuntu continues to provide proprietary drivers for video and wireless cards, while not using them by default and hedging them with warnings. In comparison, Fedora does not include proprietary software in its repositories, requiring those who want such things to find them in unofficial repositories.
The only brushes that Fedora has with proprietary software is some gray areas like firmware blobs and Mono; contrary to what you may have heard, the decision to ship the note-taker Gnote rather than its Mono-based counterpart Tomboy was based not on a rejection of Mono, but on space considerations on Fedora's increasingly crowded Live CD.
In general, the default software offerings in the latest versions of Fedora and Ubuntu continue to be almost identical. Probably the largest difference remains Fedora's shipping of SE Linux for security, as well as its attendant tools. At times, you may need to disable SELinux when you install new software, and its complexity makes many dislike it. At the same time, SELinux gives you security that is strong and can be finely tuned, and is unmatched by anything that Ubuntu installs by default.
Both Fedora and Ubuntu continue to be centered on GNOME. At the same time, both offer alternative interfaces. But with Ubuntu's focus on improving usability in the GNOME interface and, in the next release, defaulting to its new GNOME-based Unity desktop, alternatives like the KDE-based Kubuntu or Xfce-based Xubuntu seem to be receiving less attention. Lesser-known graphical interfaces like LXDE and Sugar are available in Ubuntu, but receive little promotion in the release notes.
The same is true to an extent in Fedora. However, in the last few years, Fedora has been giving KDE and Xfce more attention, acknowledging them more strongly as alternatives. Fedora 14 continues this tradition by promoting the MeeGo mobile interface in its release notes.
Suggesting that Ubuntu neglects alternatives would be going too far. Still, it does seem accurate to say that the latest Ubuntu release focuses on its version of GNOME, and treats other desktops as secondary, particularly if they are not developed in a separate sub-project.
A Sign of Things to Come
Despite Ubuntu's emphasis on usability, in the end, the latest versions of Fedora and Ubuntu remain based on GNOME and generally offer comparable user experiences. In the few places where one of them does not, modifications remain easy, except where Ubuntu has unilaterally altered GNOME.
All the same, a comparison of the two shows a clear picture of policy. Focused on reaching profitability and increasing usability, Ubuntu seems more centralized in its policy than Fedora.
By contrast, Fedora seems to retain more of the spirit of a traditional distribution, shipping a distribution that does not venture far technically from what upstream projects like GNOME offer. Nor does Fedora show many signs of preferring one interface over another, aside from the fact that it defaults to GNOME.
The difference can be seen in the release notes. On the one hand, Maverick's release notes are largely a list of new features and known problems, with usability issues and interface notes at the top, and the alternative interfaces to GNOME each placed in their own brief sections.
On the other hand, Fedora 14's release notes are divided by types of users, with sections for desktop users, system administrators, developers, and other specific audiences, such as amateur radio and musicians, and alternative interfaces placed where everyone can read them.
The message in the release notes is that Fedora is for all sorts of users, whereas Ubuntu seems focused on as straightforward an experience for new users as possible. Nothing could more indicative of the differences in the two distro's current concerns.
Which of these two approaches to distribution-building is preferable remains a matter of choice. Ubuntu's popularity and the speed of its changes suggest that there is something to be said for its commercial, centralized approach. Yet, at the same time, Fedora's more generalist approach seems more tolerant of the differences in how users work.
In the end, neither Ubuntu 10.10 or Fedora 14 are major releases. However, if you look closely, you can see the seeds of differences that might grow larger over the next few years.