October 23, 2007

Fedora 8 renews tradition of innovations

Author: Bruce Byfield

Not all major software versions carry the same weight. Consider the last two releases of the Fedora distribution. Fedora 7 offered little that was obvious to desktop users, despite some behind-the-scenes improvements and the opening of the release process to public scrutiny. By contrast, if Test 3 of Fedora 8 is any indication, the upcoming release, scheduled for next month, returns to the distribution's tradition of introducing a variety of innovations. Some of these innovations, like the new firewall tool, are minor, if still welcome. Others, like the IcedTea version of Java and Codec Buddy, are flawed, but may eventually find their way into other distributions.

After seven releases of its own and the previous Red Hat releases, Fedora has most aspects of putting a distribution together down to a routine. Like the previous release, Fedora 8 is available as a net install or from two live CDs, one of which features GNOME and the other KDE. Little has changed in its Anaconda installer from recent releases, wallpaper aside. Nor are the trio of yum, Pirut, and Pup for software installation greatly changed, aside from a noticeable increase in speed.

The security tools centering around SELinux are similarly unchanged, and you can take as a given that Fedora 8 has the latest versions of all the standard productivity tools, such as GNOME 2.20, OpenOffice.org 2.3, and Firefox, as well as a 2.6.23 tickless kernel, which theoretically results in power savings and a cooler CPU.

Similarly, the new release maintains the Fedora tradition of introducing a new desktop. While Fedora 7's was a slightly over-the-top airbrushed theme, Fedora 8's Infinity theme heads in the opposite direction with a minimalist theme whose default wallpaper suggests a series of converging vapor trails.

These standard elements are not flawless -- the installer, for instance, could include Xfce as a desktop alternative -- but, generally, they offer a reasonable set of options for most users, and are reliable. With such a solid foundation, Fedora 8 is in a strong position to innovate, and the fact that it does so is a credit to its community -- even if these innovations are not always successful.

Firewall configuration

Aside from the default inclusion of the Tomboy note applet on the top panel, the most noticeable new feature is system-config-firewall. In Fedora 7's system-config-securitylevel tool, firewall configuration was lumped in with high-level SELinux tools, and meaningful only to those with firewall experience. At first glance, the new Firewall Configuration dialog has simply merged with the Services dialog, but, as you start to explore, you find that newbie-friendly warnings and advice have been added everywhere in wordy and not not quite grammatical English.

Unfortunately, this advice seems to be incomplete, and therefore throws users back on their own resources in the Other Ports and Custom Rules pane. Even the wizard form of the tool, which starts promisingly enough with some basic questions about how the system is connected, leaves users stranded once they have defined themselves as beginners or experts in the subject of firewalls, throwing them out into the main window without any sense of what changes have been made. The potential for a tool that helps users through a difficult subject is there, but is still unrealized in the Test 3.

Codec Buddy

Fedora's Codec Buddy, a.k.a. Codeina, is reminiscent of Ubuntu's Restricted Drivers Manager or automatic codex install. All these tools are an effort to compromise between the projects' preference for free software ethics, which prohibit the shipping of elements with non-free licenses, even if they are available for free download, and the realization that many users will want these elements anyway.

Although I support Fedora's free software stance, I also admit that I find Codec Buddy's acceptance of this reality so grudging as to be comical. "Fedora does not condone the use of audio and video codec that require patent licenses to be written and/or distributed," it warns in an initial message. "Due to the existence of such patents, Free Software implementations of such codecs might not be legal in the country you live in, or the file you're trying to play back might not be available in free formats."

Only after this sermon -- which, mercifully, can be set to not play again -- are you take to a site where you can download Fluendo's MP3 audio codec. Somewhat confusedly, the Codec Installer also lists several of Fluendo's other products, which are not available for free download, and not available through Codec Buddy. After accepting the license, you can proceed with your download, but Codec Buddy neglects to mention one important point -- you need SELinux set to "Permissive" in order to actually install the codec.

I wonder whether the proliferation of codec installers is worth the effort, and whether users might not be better off installing the LAME package from rpm.livna.org, Fedora's unofficial non-free repository, instead.

Functionality aside, the introduction of a special relationship between a community distribution and a company is one that may leave many users uneasy. Whether Codec Buddy or something like it will spread to other distributions is uncertain, but I suspect it may spark some debates about free software.

IcedTea Java

In an earlier Fedora Core release, Fedora was one of the first distributions to include a hack of GNU Compiler for Java (GCJ) to enable the running of applications such as Eclipse and OpenOffice.org with completely free software. Since then, Fedora has continued to offer a GCJ-based alternative form of Java.

Recently, of course, much of the Java source code has been released, and the remainder is being imitated in a series of hybrids -- free Java versions based partly on Sun's released code and partly on the efforts of free Java projects like GCJ and Open JDK.

Fedora 8 is offering Iced Java as its alternative. It's using a modified GCJ browser plugin for Firefox and claiming enhanced performance for this new hybrid. While such a claim is difficult to substantiate, this one seems largely true. OpenOffice.org, which requires Java for some plugins, detects IcedTea as Sun Java 1.7, and random testing of Java sites and applets on the Internet suggests that Iced Java is, in fact, the better free Java that it claims to be.

However, "better" is not the same as "perfect." Although Fedora 8 can run many Java applications than earlier versions cannot, IcedTea is still not a complete replacement for Sun's offering. Evidently, some classpaths remain to be implemented, and compatibility with applications requiring a version before 1.5 remains hit or miss.

It's not whether you win or lose

These are not the only innovations scheduled for Fedora 8. I would have liked a chance to experiment with PulseAudio, the Enlightened Sound Daemon replacement that is supposed to allow hot-switching between programs, but Fedora failed to detect the sound card on my test system. Similarly, I was unable to investigate general improvements for laptops, such as improved switching between power states and improved battery preservation, because I had only a workstation available.

Other innovations operate largely invisibly to allow individual programs to take advantage of the tickless kernel and the removal of the XFS font server from the default boot sequence. Nor are average users likely be aware of Transifex, which helps Fedora translators to contribute more easily to upstream projects.

This release makes it obvious that the Fedora community prides itself on innovation. If nothing else, the public documentation of each change on the project wiki should make the perspective clear. If, despite being marked on the wiki as complete, some of these innovations seem flawed or limited, that seems only inevitable -- with so many efforts at finding a new direction, some are bound to fail, or to be less successful than others, especially in their first release. Fedora deserves appreciation for trying. At the introductory stage, that matters more, perhaps, than complete success.


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