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What is Fedora?

By Jake Edge
October 28, 2009

We briefly looked in on the discussion on defining the Fedora project a few weeks back. Since that time, there has been more discussion—not surprising—but also a bit more clarity on exactly what needs to be defined. While it may seem like an unnecessary, abstract exercise to some, it is clear from the discussion that there are some in the community who are directly impacted by the lack of a good shared vision of "what is Fedora?", or, perhaps more accurately: "who are Fedora's target users?".

There are a number of issues that are swirling around in the threads on the fedora-advisory-board mailing list. In general, there is dissatisfaction among users of Fedora, even highly technical users, because of the rapid, often not very exhaustively tested upgrades that are part-and-parcel of the Fedora experience. Fedora has a commitment to providing "leading edge" software to its users, but, to many users, leading edge does not equate to non-functional or hard-to-use. Unfortunately, that is what Fedora is delivering too much of the time.

As an example of technical users who have moved away from Fedora, Máirín Duffy quotes a user who contacted her off-list. The user has multiple clients, most of whom are quite technical as well, but have moved from Fedora to other distributions over the last two years or so. Upgrade instability is a major reason:

One particular quote she gave me that I'd like to share:

"Fedora boasts of an "innovation" target audience but is falling down in the two areas real world (excepting perhaps games and CGI) high-innovation users demand: stable upgrades and consistent usability. I believe if your group can wrestle these back under control the distro numbers would increase dramatically."

In summary, having technical users as a target isn't a good excuse for instability and complexity.

But, there is a tension between the goal of providing the "latest and greatest" and the goal of providing something that is consistently usable. Seth Vidal, sums it up this way: "And this is the crux of our problem: fedora is for latest leading-edge pkgs. It's not easy or reasonable to have the latest of things AND have a stable interface for them." The sense from the discussion, though, is that Fedora may have gone too far in the "bleeding edge" direction and that being a bit more cautious with which software versions are delivered is warranted. Bill Nottingham sees the need for a balance:

We want to present the newest innovations to users, but not so new that they don't work. And we want to be focused on making it just work, so they don't have to run 500 arcane commands, cut and paste config snippets from the web, or jump through other hoops just to use that innovation. Nor do we want to be pushing new innovation to them so fast that they can't keep up with it, or find that their way of doing things changes from week to week during a release.

Mike McGrath brought up a subject that was clearly an undercurrent in the discussion, which he described as "the elephant in the room": Ubuntu. There is a sense that Fedora users, and potential users, are moving to, or starting out with, Ubuntu. There are good reasons for that, he said:

The problem? They are KILLING us. I'm not talking about market share, I'm talking about my recent converts from Fedora to Ubuntu. I haven't had to do a single thing to my wife's computer since I put Ubuntu on there except setup my printer. With Fedora I was on it almost daily.

Targeting new users is quite different than targeting new technology, though. There is a real question whether Fedora can do both. There are lessons to be learned from Ubuntu, however, as William Jon McCann points out:

Might be worth considering how Ubuntu was largely borne out of the failures of Fedora. What are they doing right? What are we doing wrong? How can we improve? There is very little time to continue to be defensive. It is time to confront the brutal facts - we're losing (badly).

Duffy finds something of a middle ground:

We don't need to target Ubuntu's user base in order to produce something excellent, something polished, something that is delightful to use and makes people's lives easier, something that impresses them such that they care about how it was made.

There is a fairly clear split in the Fedora community about where to focus the project's efforts. There are some who would like to see Fedora make the effort to stabilize to the point where attracting new, non-technical users would be possible. Whereas others see that as largely impossible while upholding the "innovation" that has been the hallmark of the distribution.

That split makes life difficult when folks try to determine a direction to take or how to prioritize their work. Duffy, who does much of the design work for Fedora, describes the split and its effect on her work:

The 2 views as I would summarize them are:

- Fedora is a beautiful, usable desktop for everyone (or at least, we're getting there.) Pandas are okay! We're ready to push to the masses.

- Fedora is a menagerie of equal spins for highly-technical folks and FOSS developers. Don't you dare insult our intelligence with pandas. Go back to Sesame street.

[...] The main issue from a design perspective is that if no target is defined, then the target becomes 'everybody' - and I personally feel it's impossible to make a top-notch, beautiful design when trying to please everybody.

Even determining the target user doesn't solve the underlying problems with stability, though, as Christopher Aillon points out:

If we want to target Fedora for any class of user, we need to think and act for the user. Right now, we're clearly not even acting for the people that do use our distribution. I think we should fix that before we can even begin to define what our target user should be.

The discussion, and the perceived need for a more stable system, led McGrath to make a "Desktop proposal". In it, he outlines the problems along with some potential solutions. As part of that, he would like see a new mission added to the "Fedora Mission": "Produce a usable, general purpose desktop operating system".

Putting "desktop", or even "operating system", into the mission didn't sit well with some, but the ideas in McGrath's proposal were largely met with approval. In many ways, he captured some of the thoughts that had been floating around in the threads. One problem that McGrath mentioned might be helped by Jesse Keating's idea for "No Frozen Rawhide" (as it has come to be called):

I plan to make rawhide more unstable more of the time, and I plan to make "rawhide" more stable more of the time. Crazy eh? How can I do this? By splitting "rawhide" in two.

The Fedora board took up the question of defining target users for Fedora in its October 22 meeting. Project leader Paul Frields reported on the meeting at some length, noting that the No Frozen Rawhide (or "unfrozen rawhide") proposal was looked at favorably. There was also discussion of how to ensure that updates are smoother for users. But the main point that came out of the meeting was a preliminary definition of Fedora's target users:

We found four defining characteristics that we believe best describe the Fedora distribution's target audience: Someone who (1) is voluntarily switching to Linux, (2) is familiar with computers, but is not necessarily a hacker or developer, (3) is likely to collaborate in some fashion when something's wrong with Fedora, and (4) wants to use Fedora for general productivity, either using desktop applications or a Web browser.

Much of what the board discussed will also be hashed out face-to-face at the Fedora Users and Developers Conference (FUDCon) in Toronto in early December.

The Fedora project is at a bit of a crossroads right now, but the project seems to be taking the right steps to determine which direction to take. Unlike other distributions, Fedora tends to have these conversations in public, which allows others to observe and learn from the process. While that may make some uncomfortable, it should make for a healthier community overall. In the end, community is really what Fedora is striving for, and an OS is just a means to that end.

Comments (19 posted)

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