Fedora 19: clearly not for end users

A few months ago I published a scathing review of Fedora 18, the last release of the Linux distribution which started life as Red Hat Linux, once the version of Linux that everyone who knew anything about Linux knew about. For many people, Red Hat *was* Linux, and was the version that featured on almost every book on “Linux” (either the book was explicitly about Red Hat Linux or that was the version on the cover disk). It has lost a lot of popularity over the years as the product morphed into Fedora, the boxed version was abandoned and Ubuntu has become more popular, and Fedora itself concentrated on “freedom” by refusing to bundle software which had restrictions on it (i.e. free but proprietary software and sound and video decoders subject to licensing agreements). With the last release, they completely redesigned the installer which made it a highly confusing bit of software with the potential to wipe your data if you were not careful. This version is barely improved over the last one.

The same, confusing installer is still present. I had installed previous versions of Fedora and I could never understand why it had to be redesigned: it was something that was used once and wasn’t badly designed or confusing. There is still no obvious way of installing the OS over more than one disk other than by using LVM; other installers show you all the disks and let you make partitions and make mount points on whichever disk from one screen. This one showed me a whole list of partitions of zero size which no other software ever told me existed (I am guessing they don’t); it grouped the existing partitions according to the OS install they were part of, rather than just showing me the partitions and letting me do with them as I wished. It still wouldn’t let me set volume names, either, and it didn’t offer the obvious option (which is what I always do) of reformatting the root partition and keeping the home one (which has ‘home’ in the volume name). At least this time, it made it clear that changes would not be written to the disk until I began the installation.

The software selection is also not much better. You still have to choose between a set of canned installation types, such as a KDE or GNOME desktop or a “developer” system, which offers no other details such as what desktop environment, if any, or window manager will be installed. At least this time, you get to set the time zone before installation, and the “first boot” routine (such as where you create a user and set the root password) was eliminated. It still failed to install the bootloader properly, resulting in my having to launch the OS manually from the GRUB rescue prompt, as in version 18. Other distros suggest where to install it, and Fedora 18 and 19 are the only systems where I’ve ever had this problem.

A new problem (as far as I know, at least) is that the OS never would boot unless I disabled SELinux, the built-in security features. The boot process would just stop as if it had encountered a file-system error, and put up a rescue prompt (and if you started the boot process again, it would just return you to the prompt). This is not the first time I have encountered problems with SELinux, but the last time I used Fedora it was constant alerts about possible security violations, and then as now, disabling it was the only obvious solution. It seems that it’s only good for brand new systems, and if it isn’t then the installer should make the existing files or file systems compatible with SELinux, or it should be disabled then.

I installed the KDE desktop, and their version of KDE is fairly presentable; it’s not heavily customised like OpenSUSE’s, other than in having a custom background and login screen theme. Fedora’s emphasis on “freedom” means you have to find things like MP3 codecs and the Adobe Flash player yourself, unless you really have no interest in them; most end users will want them. There is a repository for codecs called RPM Fusion, but the Flash player you have to get direct from Adobe. I suspect that, rather than being part of a commitment to software freedom, this reflects a tougher stance by the US government on matters of patents and copyrights; other distributions are based in Europe (Ubuntu on the Isle of Man, SUSE nowadays in Germany) so bundling this software in freely downloadable CD or DVD images is not a problem. More frustrating was its less than effective font handling, especially in GTK applications such as Chrome, Firefox and Thunderbird, where the font settings I specified in the KDE settings window had no effect. I had to compile another GTK font configuration module (the same one that comes as standard with other distros that use KDE, but which Fedora has rejected) myself and install it.

The standard desktop on Fedora 19 is GNOME, and Fedora has always preferred GNOME as does Red Hat, a stance that goes back to the late 1990s when KDE was based on a then unfree toolkit. I’ve tried GNOME 3 on a number of systems and have never liked it. Perhaps it works better than KDE; I didn’t install it to find out (although I’ve still got the live CD so might give it a go).

All in all, it looks as though Fedora has abandoned the end user as a market for their project, and is concentrating on distro developers, in particular the developers of Red Hat Enterprise Linux but also some small projects such as Korora. A Fedora 19-based version of Korora was released the same day as Fedora 19, so if you’re interested you might like to download that instead. It was always known that Fedora was going to be used as a basis for RHEL as far back as 2003 when Red Hat Linux was discontinued, but Fedora 18 and 19 takes this to a whole new level: it is just too buggy and unfriendly for end users, and no attempt has been made to remedy this. Two releases of this make me conclude that this is deliberate. Fedora’s update and admin tools are (and always have been) vastly inferior to those in OpenSUSE which uses the same package management system (RPM) as Fedora, albeit with vastly superior front-ends. OpenSUSE and Ubuntu are very stable and fairly user-friendly; Fedora is clearly intentionally unstable and unfriendly, and cannot be recommended for desktop use.

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