If the net seems slow over the next week or so, it may well be due to the
near-simultaneous releases from two major distributions. The long-awaited
release of Debian GNU/Linux 3.1 (also known as "sarge") was announced
on June 6. As it happens,
Fedora Core 4 was due on the same day, but has been pushed back one
week to June 13. This delay was not due to any particular technical
problems; instead, it seems, the lawyers were a little slow to sign off on
the code name for this release.
A comparison of a few key packages in these two distributions can be
|Package||Debian 3.1||Fedora Core 4|
|X||XFree86 4.3.0||Xorg 6.8.2|
These numbers will come as little surprise to most; it is in the nature of
Debian releases to be slow in coming and mildly obsolete when they arrive,
while Fedora releases run closer to the bleeding edge.
The two distributions have different goals: Debian seeks to produce a
highly stable distribution for its users; Fedora, instead, is a rapidly
updated distribution providing current software to users and a real-world
test bed for Red Hat.
The table listed above is not entirely fair; many packages in Debian sarge
(including important ones, like Firefox) are at or near their current
versions. Then, there is this table, which provides a different view:
|Package||Debian 3.1||Fedora Core 4|
This table could be made much longer, but the point should be clear: few
distributions can offer the sheer variety of packages found in Debian. In
all fairness, one should note that the Fedora Extras repository fills in
some of the gaps on the Fedora side. Fedora Extras works reasonably well,
but it remains a "second class citizen" repository without any commitment
to future updates or security support. Debian also supports a much wider
range of architectures than Fedora.
As these milestones are reached, both distributions are considering where
they want to go in the future. On the Debian side, there is a general
desire to improve the release process so that the next major release
("etch") comes a little more quickly. There is some planning happening for
a painful gcc upgrade and a PostgreSQL transition, among other things.
There is a continual low-level rumble on how Debian and derivatives (Ubuntu
in particular) should work with each other. The "how many architectures
should Debian support?" question still lacks a definitive answer. It also
seems, however, that the Debian developers are taking a well-deserved break
and deferring much of the "what now?" discussion until Debconf5, happening in mid-July.
(As luck would have it, the conference has offered to fly LWN Distributions
Page editor Rebecca Sobol to the event, so LWN will have coverage from
On the Fedora side, a deliberate effort was
made to start a discussion on what should be in Fedora Core 5. A few
suggested: more security features and faster booting, for
example. Most of the discussion, however, has centered around a suggestion to increase the length of the
development cycle somewhat (to nine months or so). The current six-month cycle
allows for a maximum of about two or three months before the stabilization efforts
set in, and some developers are finding it difficult to get their changes
in within that window. The suggestion has not been particularly well
received by the powers that be within Red Hat, however.
In theory, opposition from Red Hat should matter less in the future. At
the recently-concluded Red Hat Summit, the company announced that it
planned to set Fedora free, and to put it under the control of an
independent foundation. There have been no communications from the company
on this subject outside of the conference, so details are scarce. Nothing
has been said on how this foundation will be formed, funded, or governed.
It remains to be seen whether Red Hat is truly willing to give up enough
control to allow Fedora to pick its own directions. A truly independent
Fedora, however, has the potential to combine a strong base distribution
with a larger, more enthusiastic developer community; it could be a force
to be reckoned with.
Debian and Fedora are two very different distributions. Debian is a huge,
community-driven project with a "when it's ready" release policy. Fedora
is, for now, a company-controlled, smaller distribution with scheduled
releases. In many ways, however, they appear to be converging. Debian is
facing the size issue (by considering which packages and architectures
truly belong in the core distribution), release cycles, and, via efforts
like Ubuntu, commercial appeal. Fedora, meanwhile, aims for a stronger
community orientation and is debating package policies and release cycle
issues of its own. Both distributions will remain part of our community
for a long time - and we are richer for having both of them. But they are
responding to many of the same pressures, so it would not be entirely
surprising to see them look more alike in the future.
Comments (15 posted)
The Mozilla project recently released alpha builds of Firefox 1.1
. In addition to bugfixes and performance enhancements, there are
several new features in Firefox and Thunderbird that look interesting. So,
what's slated for Firefox 1.1 and Thunderbird 1.1? Let's start by looking
at the "Deer Park" alpha build of Firefox 1.1.
Firefox 1.1 is the first major milestone on the way to Firefox 2.0. Firefox
1.5, planned for sometime in 2006, is the second milestone, with 2.0 being
the final milestone. Overall, the 1.1 release isn't a radical change from
1.0, but there are some pleasant new features to look forward to, and a few
user interface changes as well.
The "Preferences" dialog has been modified quite a bit, which may throw
users at first, but the overall layout seems a bit more logical. Some of
the finer-grained controls have gone away, which may or may not be seen as
a good thing. For example, in Firefox 1.0, users can disable specific
status bar," and so forth. Firefox 1.1 gives users the option to enable
also adds a "Tabs" dialog dealing with all of the tab functions in
Firefox. The new Preferences dialog, and the new Thunderbird dialog, is
very similar in layout to Apple's Safari browser Preferences dialog.
There is a new tool to quickly remove information from Firefox, called
"Sanitize." One can choose to clear browsing history, saved form
information, download history, cache, cookies and saved passwords with a
hotkey or by choosing the "Sanitize" option from the tools menu. Sanitize
is configurable, so one can choose to erase download history, cache and
browsing history, for example, without erasing saved passwords or
cookies. Users also have the option of erasing these items each time
Firefox is shut down. This is a very useful option for those who share
computers with other family members, roommates and co-workers.
Firefox 1.1 also improves browsing pages in the cache, so browsing forward
and backward seems much faster than in Firefox 1.0. Granted, Firefox 1.0
isn't terribly slow, but even a few seconds improves the user experience
Users will also be able to report "broken" websites using Firefox 1.1. The
release includes a "Report a Broken Web Site" wizard which provides the
URL, a list of possible problems ("Browser not supported," "Can't log in,"
"Plugin not showing," and so forth) and a field to describe the problem in
feature, the Mozilla team will use this feature to work with webmasters to
correct interoperability problems with Firefox. Whether the feature will
actually encourage webmasters to fix the problems is another story.
The "Cookies" dialog has changed somewhat. Cookies are now organized in
folders by site, and users can search to find the cookies that they're
looking for rather than scrolling through the list, which can be handy if
one has accumulated a long list of cookies.
Despite its alpha status, we didn't run into any serious glitches, crashes
or other nastiness using Firefox 1.1. This writer plans to continue using
Firefox 1.1 alpha as his primary browser, since it has proven to be stable
(at least over the past three days) and offers some modest improvements
over the 1.0 release.
As with Firefox 1.1, there are no drastic interface changes or radical
feature changes slated for Thunderbird 1.1, but there are a number of
interesting improvements and new features that will make the upgrade
One spiffy new feature slated for 1.1, and working fine in the alpha
release, is the "inline" spelling checker that underlines misspelled words (or
words not yet in Thunderbird's dictionary) while you type. Thunderbird 1.0
does have spelling checking, but not as you type. Thunderbird also allows the
user to add a word to the dictionary, or ignore it, on the fly by
right-clicking on the word.
The Preferences dialog for Thunderbird has also been reworked, and is
similar to the new Preferences dialog for Firefox. Users can now get to the
"about:config" interface for Thunderbird easily, by going to the "Advanced"
tab and selecting "Config editor." Several of the features in 1.1 seem to
be inspired by Thunderbird extensions. The RSS features, and the
"about:config" access are both available for Thunderbird 1.0 as
extensions, for example. It will be interesting to see if the Mozilla developers manage
to keep Thunderbird and Firefox free of the kitchen-sink syndrome that
plagued the Mozilla suite. We're not suggesting these should only be
available as extensions, but we do hope the Mozilla team will resist adding
in popular functionality from extensions in order to keep Firefox and
Thunderbird lean and allow users to pick and choose the extensions they
Users who wish to use Thunderbird as an RSS reader will like the OPML
import capability in Thunderbird 1.1. We tested Thunderbird with an OPML
file exported from Bloglines with more than 130 feeds. Thunderbird handled
it gracefully, and imported all the feeds with no apparent problems. There
should be an "export" capability in the final 1.1 release, but it is not in
the current release.
Thunderbird 1.1 will also come with features to help users avoid being
scammed by phishing
attacks. We didn't actually get any phishing scams to test this out with
Thunderbird, but the client is supposed to display a warning message if a
message looks like a phishing attack.
Again, as with Firefox's alpha, the Thunderbird alpha handled well enough
that this writer will probably employ it for day to day use -- while making
regular backups of mail, just in case.
The Firefox roadmap
calls for a second alpha release in June, and a beta and final 1.1 release
sometime later this year. The Thunderbird
roadmap calls for a final 1.1 release in June, but that may need to be
pushed back since the alpha release is only a few days old.
Comments (7 posted)
The Center for Democracy & Technology
long been "working for democratic values in a digital age." CDT has taken
on many issues, including encryption, freedom of speech, privacy, and
more. So the new copyright policy
from CDT seemed worth a look. Unfortunately, the CDT
appears to have lost track of some important goals in its desire to
The stated goal of the paper is:
... to outline a general framework for protecting copyright in a
manner that is consistent with the open architecture of the
Internet and with the interests of creators, consumers, and
Most of us, probably, can agree with the goal of "protecting copyright."
The whole structure of free software licensing, after all, is based on
copyright law. Without copyright, there could be no General Public
License. Free software could still exist in such a world, but the rules
would be different.
So how do we "protect copyright"? The CDT offers a three-pronged approach,
the first of which is "punishing bad actors." The authors, it seems, are
enthusiastic supporters of actions like mass lawsuits against file
traders. Also big on their list is "secondary liability" for people who
encourage file sharing - Grokster, for example. There is a token mention
of how secondary liability should only target "bad activity" without
"chilling the development of new technologies or the provision of online
services," but no discussion of how the two can be separated. There is no
mention of any situation where "secondary liability" has gone too far,
leaving the reader with the impression that the CDT is entirely happy with
the enforcement activities which have happened to this point.
Well, not entirely happy; the CDT would like to see more laws passed to get
the Federal government more heavily involved in copyright enforcement.
They would also like to see:
Cooperation between content owners and ISPs on a voluntary basis to
find practical and appropriate ways to pass crucial information on
to specific individuals while protecting their anonymity (and while
steering well clear of putting ISPs in the role of tracking and
policing subscribers' behavior) could be a positive step.
How this "positive step" would actually work is not discussed.
The core of the CDT paper, however, relates to the creation of
"consumer-friendly" DRM schemes. Given a suitable "open market," the CDT
believes that DRM can "enable" the flow of digital content we all hunger
for in our souls without making life overly frustrating for us "consumers."
The CDT does argue against specific mandates by government (but the group
appears to favor broadcast flag regulations which provide "reasonable
balance") and in favor of preserving consumer privacy. But, as a whole,
DRM schemes are clearly seen as a good thing.
The final step advocated by the CDT is "public education." The paper tells
It is particularly important to send the message to younger
consumers that infringement is unlawful and unethical. This effort
cannot be pursued by industry alone...
"Younger consumers" (and older ones too) could certainly benefit from a
better understanding of copyright law. It is probably true that educating
these "consumers" about fair use, ever-lengthening copyright periods, the
starvation of the public domain, etc. is not something that we can expect
industry to accomplish on its own. But, of course, the CDT shows no
particular interest in helping industry out on that score; it's mostly
interested in the infringement problem.
Remember that the CDT is supposed to be an advocate for democracy, civil
rights, and the consumer. But this group has, perhaps out of fear of even
worse alternatives, entirely given in to the demands of the entertainment
industry in the name of making content available to "consumers." The CDT
has sold out entirely on this issue.
There are numerous things the CDT could have addressed, were it truly
interested in the wider debate. Perhaps a little mention of the DMCA would
have been nice; seeing programmers arrested in the defense of DRM schemes
might just have a "chilling effect" or two. An examination of just how
well the market has done in producing "consumer-friendly" DRM so far might
have been in order. And it might have been nice to see at least a passing
mention of the public domain, the source of many of the ideas which have
been incorporated into current, eternally-copyrighted content.
But there are two larger failures here. The first is the firm distinction
between "producers" and "industry" on one side, and "consumers" on the
other. We are, it seems, supposed to go off, be good little consumers, and
not worry our pretty little heads about how the "producers," out there
somewhere, will protect their content in a "friendly" manner. When your
editor was young, it was often noted that freedom of the press is great if
you happen to own a press. Now that your editor is no longer so young, we
all own presses. We are no longer to be called "consumers," told to enjoy
the products from "industry" in some business-friendly way. We, too, are
producers, and we have a stake in this game. The CDT has not yet figured
One of the most dramatic ways in which we are producers can be seen in the
free software community. LWN readers are not "consumers" of Linux; they
are its producers. And we have produced a world where many copyright
infringement issues are no longer relevant. But, to the CDT, we do not
exist. Any balanced look at DRM must include this fact: free software and
DRM are absolutely incompatible with each other. When "consumers" actually
have control over their computers (and DRM-capable devices are computers),
they need not accept externally-imposed restrictions on what those
computers can do. The CDT's "consumer-friendly" DRM vision, almost by
definition, cannot include free software.
Certainly, we wish to live in a world where producers can make a living
from their work. We are all producers now, remember? Besides, how else
will we ever get to see the final three Star Wars movies we were promised
back in the 1970's? The CDT's answer to this problem, however, does not
describe a world that many of us would want to live in. Some of us,
evidently, have a different idea of what constitutes "democratic values."
Comments (9 posted)
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