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ESR: “Fedora… you blew it”


At one time, Fedora was “the” free Linux distribution. Over the last year though, Ubuntu and openSUSE have consistently outpaced Fedora on DistroWatch’s tracking charts. Well-known, open source leader Eric S. Raymond is fed-up with Fedora, and explained why in a note to Fedora and Red Hat officials.

“Over the last five years, I’ve watched Red Hat/Fedora throw away what was at one time a near-unassailable lead in technical prowess, market share and community prestige.” wrote Raymond. “The blunders have been legion on both technical and political levels.”

What brought him to this point, was when, “after thirteen years as a loyal Red Hat and Fedora user, … an attempt to upgrade one (1) package pitched me into a four-hour marathon of dependency chasing, at the end of which an attempt to get around a trivial file conflict rendered my system unusable.” Thus, Raymond reached his “limit with Fedora.”

He elaborates: “The proximate causes of this failure were (1) incompetent repository maintenance, making any nontrivial upgrade certain to founder on a failed dependency, and (2) the fact that rpm is not statically linked — so it’s possible to inadvertently remove a shared library it depends on and be unrecoverably screwed.”

This technical snafu, however, from his viewpoint, isn’t Fedora’s real trouble. Rather, “The underlying problems run much deeper.” Raymond lists out Fedora’s problems as:

* “Chronic governance problems.

* Persistent failure to maintain key repositories in a sane, consistent state from which upgrades might actually be possible.

* A murky, poorly-documented, over-complex submission process.

* Allowing RPM [The Red Hat package management system] development to drift and stagnate — then adding another layer of complexity, bugs, and wretched performance with yum ( [A wrapper for rpm that automatically retrieves packages from remote package feeds]

* Effectively abandoning the struggle for desktop market share.

* Failure to address the problem of proprietary multimedia formats with any attitude other than blank denial.”

“In retrospect,” Raymond continued, “[I] should probably have cut my losses years ago. But I had so much history with Red-Hat/Fedora, and had invested so much effort in trying to fix the problems, that it was hard to even imagine breaking away.”

“If I thought the state of Fedora were actually improving, I might hang in there. But it isn’t,” he added.

Fedora’s plans to bring Fedora Core and Extras into a single common program repository starting with Fedora 7 don’t address the issues that concern Raymond.

Raymond continued, “I’ve been on the fedora-devel list for years, and the trend is clear. The culture of the project’s core group has become steadily more unhealthy, more inward-looking, more insistent on narrow ‘free software’ ideological purity, and more disconnected from the technical and evangelical challenges that must be met to make Linux a world-changing success that liberates a majority of computer users.”

I have watched Ubuntu rise to these challenges as Fedora fell away from them. Canonical’s recent deal with Linspire [story], which will give Linux users legal access to WMF (Windows Media Format) and other key proprietary codecs, is precisely the sort of thing Red-Hat/Fedora could and should have taken the lead in. Not having done so bespeaks a failure of vision which I now believe will condemn Fedora to a shrinking niche in the future.”

Over the last year, Raymond has staked out a position that for Linux — especially desktop Linux — to be successful, it must be able to work with proprietary hardware and software. Thus, Raymond is certain that Linux must, support popular proprietary software at least on the level of ‘user-space’ applications. “If that means paying licensing fees to the Microsofts of the world so that people can watch Windows media files, then so be it” said Raymond in an interview last August. Afterwards, Raymond joined Linspire’s board. Linspire, with its Freespire distribution, has lead the way in mixing open-source programs and proprietary drivers in a Linux distribution.

It’s more than that, though. Raymond also just finds Ubuntu much easier to use. “This afternoon, I installed Edgy Eft on my main development machine — from one CD, not five. In less than three hours’ work I was able to recreate the key features of my day-to-day toolkit. The after-installation mass upgrade to current packages, always a frightening prospect under Fedora, went off without a hitch.”

“I’m not expecting Ubuntu to be perfect, but I am now certain it will be enough better to compensate me for the fact that I need to learn a new set of administration tools,” said Raymond.

He then concluded, “Fedora, you had every advantage, and you had my loyalty, and you blew it. And that is a damn, dirty shame.”

The only response, so far, from Red Hat and Fedora came from Alan Cox, the prominent Linux kernel and Red Hat developer. Cox spoke specifically to Raymond’s claims that Linux must work with proprietary software. “That would be because we believe in Free Software and doing the right thing (a practice you appear to have given up on). Maybe it is time the term ‘open source’ also did the decent thing and died out with you.”

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