Thursday, February 2, 2012
About Fedora 16
Before Fedora 16 was released, I was quite excited about all the features that were being planned for Verne. I was looking forward to installing both the GNOME and KDE versions on the same computer and test each back to back, under the same hardware and OS. Unfortunately, I had my share of ISSUES, and that kind of put me off a bit. After a while testing other distros, I had some spare time and decided to go for Fedora 16. Like I said, I tested GNOME and KDE back to back, but before I go on about that comparison (which will be an article in itself), I wanted to share some of my impressions on Verne, both from KDE and GNOME perspectives. THE GOOD There is a lot of good in Fedora 16, lots of new features that will make noticeable differences both for users as well as for administrators. In my opinion, the most noticeable (and welcome) is performance. Both flavors of Fedora 16 feel significantly more responsive that previous releases and, while this is perhaps something that we should have expected after reading the release new features/enhancements, I must admit it exceeded my expectations. Fedora 16 boots faster than most distros I have tried recently, but what's even better is that such speed is consistent throughout, even with SELinux policies enabled. I consider this a major step forward, for I had always felt Fedora was somewhat slow compared to other distros. At the end of the day, I often ended up tweaking SELinux policies to make them more permissive or disabling them altogether, but that was obviously defeating the purpose of using SELinux in the first place. Another relevant step forward is the addition of Apper, a much needed update on packagekit that finally provides Fedora with a software manager worth using. In the past, I always found packagekit so slow that it was useless to me, which meant I would go with yum and forget about it. Apper is significantly faster to start, update repositories and complete installations and updates. It still falls short on social interaction (no comments, rating, reviews available), but it does what it should do and does it well. Interestingly enough, in my testing Apper worked much better under KDE, the GNOME version still feeling too slow. Standard users will probably not notice a lot more over previous releases, because changes such as the removal of HAL may have an impact, but nothing obvious to them. There is plenty of interesting stuff in store for administrators and developers, though. As is usually the case, there are tons of updates in terms of programming languages and compilers. What is most relevant, though, is the availability of Virtualization, Cloud and remote control tools, a must these days. OpenStack, Pacemaker-Cloud, TigerVNC or Matahari are examples of such applications/tools. All of the usual Fedora strengths remain intact, such as very up to date software and the latest features in the open source World. THE BAD It is precisely that bleeding edge nature of Fedora that can bring unpleasant surprises. Fedora is not shy about it and it does state it in its foundations that: "We recognize that there is also a place for long-term stability in the Linux ecosystem, and that there are a variety of community-oriented and business-oriented Linux distributions available to serve that need. However, the Fedora Project's goal of advancing free software dictates that the Fedora Project itself pursue a strategy that preserves the forward momentum of our technical, collateral, and community-building progress. Fedora always aims to provide the future, first." Which is a way of saying that investing in future technology is more of a priority than long-term stability. That is all good, of course, but it shouldn't be understood as an excuse to release changes that can have an impact on stability without the right levels of information. Now, since Fedora 11, I have always installed this distro the same way. I would download the ISO, create a LiveCD-USB out of it, complete the installation with the default options and that was it, I was ready to enjoy Fedora. Up to Fedora 15, this part of the process was always easy and flawless in my experience. Come Fedora 16, though, the default installation rendered my machine useless, for my BIOS couldn't even find the OS. The decision to substitute DOS partition tables with GPT ones by default simply screwed up my system. After investigating a bit, I found a small note in Fedora Wiki that explained this change, but there was no warning during the installation at any point. Not a single shred of information about this new default partition table layout, something I consider quite critical in an installation. I personally believe this was a terrible move by Fedora, because while I applaud the will to be at the forefront of Linux development, that does not exclude any responsibility towards users. In my opinion, a change of this nature should have been handled differently, there are many options: 1.- Have Anaconda auto-detect if the target machine BIOS supports GPT partition tables, revert to DOS partition tables if not. 2.- If option 1 is not technically viable, then use DOS partition tables by default, informing users that GPT ones are available and that testing them is recommended, obviously informing about the risk of doing so as well. 3.- If option 2 is not good because that would delay the testing of GPT partition tables, at the very least warn users that such change in Anaconda's default installation process took place and what its consequences may be. Any of those options (there are obviously many more) imply an interest in users and their experience with Fedora, which I think is a must for any distro builder. Simply releasing something as critical as a new default partition table policy hoping that users are going to read all the release notes and Wiki is a bit irresponsible in my opinion. THE UGLY These are the days of smartphones, tablets and touch interfaces. There are many different models, sizes and brands, but there is one factor that all of them have in common (or at least try to): Beauty. Apple has demonstrated that pretty devices and OS, even if more expensive, can sell crazy figures and become people's favorites. I wonder then, why is this idea sometimes so overlooked in the Linux World? Take Fedora 16, for example. Even with the gorgeous GNOME and KDE desktops on top, there are still little things that simply look ugly. Starting with Anaconda, there is plenty of room here to make something not only pleasant to the eye, but simply current looking. Fortunately, it seems a makeover is due next release. Similarly, most Fedora applications, such as the user management one, still use their own icon theme and look old and anything but native. On a different note, given that Fedora creates its own set of wallpapers for each release, why not add a button so that users can easily download them? There is also room for improvement when it comes to documentation and help aids, which are nowhere to be found in the default desktops. Small details like these can make a big difference in terms of end user experience. IN SHORT Once past the initial installation problems, Fedora 16 is clearly worth it. Standard users will notice performance benefits while administrators and developers will again find plenty of things to have fun with. Personally I would like to see more interest on end user experience and support, as well as on polishing aesthetics.