With all the shouting about Ubuntu 8.10's release, it's easy to forget about the other distributions out there. Case in point: Fedora, which has typically been my favorite (apart from Puppy), now getting a bump to its own revision number. And so yesterday I sat down around a warm conference bridge with Paul Frields, the project leader for Fedora at Red Hat, to chat about Fedora 10.
One thing that's becoming clearer with time -- and this is something I knew I wanted to ask Paul sooner rather than later -- is the way the major distributions are assuming certain roles. Ubuntu is Linux For Real People, that part's easy -- but what about Fedora? Paul put it this way: to them, Fedora is the R&D lab for free software in general, not just Linux, although Linux is of course the platform for delivering all that free software.
An example he gave me: Most of us who've used the latest Linux distros are familiar with PackageKit, which makes it easier to install packages needed to play certain types of media or open specific files. Right now, it's all about codecs, but in the future it could very well be about, for instance, being sent a desktop-publishing document and then electing to either install a minimal viewer for the document -- or to install the whole of Scribus so you can actually do work with the document. (Your choice.) Free software, he stated, makes it possible to do stuff like this -- delivering the application as an adjunct to the document you use it with, because the whole thing's free and there are no restrictions on accomplishing such things. He was also adamant that efforts to include things like this would not come at the cost of general usability. "We are always looking for feature-completeness," he stressed, meaning that whatever people use in Fedora is going to be as solid as they can make it.
Paul also pointed out another thing that engineering Fedora allows them to do: figure out how to create a software community. This way if someone else comes along and wants to do the same thing in a different realm, they have a model they can look at, and they can figure out what mistakes not to make by simply watching and learning.
This is something that I think many people try to do, but few do well -- not just for lack of a model, but lack of detailed word about how to wrestle with and overcome all the pettifogging little details that can kill a community. The more ways you come up with streamlining things, the better.
I got so caught up in this stuff, I almost forgot to talk about what's actually new in Fedora 10. The rundown of new features is, in fact, pretty interesting: a new start-up technology called Plymouth; better network-connection sharing; remote-installation capabilities via network booting; tools for building Fedora-branded software appliances ("Fedora Remix"); and so on.
But for me, the software's actually placing second to the way the community around the software is put together. There needs to be more talk about that sort of thing, and more stories from the frontline about such things are done.
Code's easy. Community -- that's hard.