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Distributions

Fuduntu: A small distribution making it big

November 16, 2011

This article was contributed by Bruce Byfield

The Fuduntu distribution is just over a year old, and its first release had a modest but respectable ten thousand downloads. However, with the growing interest in alternatives to GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity, the new 14.12 release is receiving more notice. It's easy to see why: using borrowed tools, Fuduntu tweaks a GNOME 2 desktop to roughly resemble both GNOME and Unity, while offering an unusual but highly serviceable selection of applications and customization tools. The result is a distribution that, although designed for netbooks, works well on larger screens as well.

With the motto "Punning Name, Serious Distro," Fuduntu was founded by Andrew "fewt" Wyatt on November 7, 2010. "The very first version," Wyatt told Distrowatch recently, "was nothing more than Fedora 14 with a few tweaks and packages that I normally installed on my computer(s) wrapped up into a live DVD for me to use to install everything on my second computer."

[Desktop]

Since then, Fuduntu has matured dramatically. From Wyatt's private convenience, it has grown to a project with a regular team of eight, each of whom has a voice in development decisions. It now has an end user's license agreement similar to Red Hat's, a three-server system for rolling out security and regular package releases, and a quarterly release cycle. Recently, too, it has started hosting its own repositories, instead of relying on Fedora 14's.

Looking back on the previous year with obvious satisfaction in the release announcement, Wyatt declared: "We have grown astronomically both in terms of the community, and in terms of mindshare."

Taking the middle road

Asked by LWN what is implied by the name, Wyatt replied:

Fuduntu is designed to fit in the middle by providing a stable desktop with some of the design concepts from the major distributions like Fedora and Ubuntu. We don't limit ourselves to that scope, however. We have also looked at other platforms like Windows and OSX and tuned the experience to be similar to all of them, yet still unique.

What Wyatt did not say (but is obvious from the design), is that Fuduntu's middle way includes avoiding the radical and sometimes controversial changes introduced by GNOME 3.x and Ubuntu's Unity shells.

Fuduntu uses Fedora's Anaconda installer and, until recently, the Fedora 14 repositories, but its default appearance is all its own. Specifically, Fuduntu uses GNOME 2.32 with the already existing Avant Window Navigator in place of a bottom panel. A combination of a Favorites menu and a task manager, this dock is reminiscent of both GNOME 3's dash and Unity's launcher, and can even be configured to give the illusion of a 3-D appearance via a combination of perspective, spotlighting, and shadows.

[Avant configuration]

The difference is that, unlike its counterparts on other desktops, Avant is highly configurable. Like the classic GNOME panel, its position and size are adjustable. So, too, are its icons, theme, auto-hide capabilities, and other behaviors. In addition, Avant supports its own set of applets, some similar in function to the ones on the panel, and others unique, such as the media player buttons.

Other standard features, such as virtual workspaces, are available from panel applets, but are not enabled by default. The overall effect is an incremental improvement in the classic GNOME 2 series. The result is an appealing simplicity that might leave you wondering why so much effort was invested in GNOME 3 or Unity when a similar result could be achieved simply by creative borrowing.

Rethinking applications and configuration

Besides the appearance, the other factor that makes Fuduntu stand out is the selection of default applications. Like a number of distributions, Fuduntu licenses Adobe Flash and the Fluendo MP3 codec, neither of which costs anything, but requires yearly approval from their manufacturers before distributing. However, unlike most distributions derived from a major one, Fuduntu does not simply dump the standard GNOME applications into its default installation. It includes a few GNOME standards, such as Banshee, Nautilus, and Tomboy, but other choices suggest a thoughtful awareness of the range of alternative possibilities.

For instance, network applications are represented by the Chromium browser and a link to GoogleDocs in place of an office suite, as well as the DejaVu backup tool and Dropbox, the cloud storage system. Others you might have only heard of (if at all), such as the screen capture application Shutter, or Remmina, the remote desktop client.

However, where Fuduntu's selection is most welcome is the configuration options. One of its default applications is Ailurus, a combination package installer and graphical GNOME configuration tool. Scan through the System menus, and you soon discover more, including tools for selecting Nautilus scripts and Nautilus Actions to enhance the file browser. You can also use the Bottom Panel Chooser to select the type of panel you want, or Jupiter to control power and hardware.

All these controls add up to the most configurable default GNOME desktops that I have ever encountered. Yet, because of the simplicity of Fuduntu's appearance, the impression is not one of clutter, but of a desktop that appeals — unlike recent versions of Fedora and Ubuntu — to all levels of users. The advanced tools are in the menus if you can appreciate them, but you can just as safely ignore them if you prefer.

Viability

With an update of the familiar GNOME 2 series and a high degree of configurability, Fuduntu has a simple, yet powerful formula for success. Yet, like all small distributions, Fuduntu raises some basic questions — namely, can it survive? Just as importantly, what are its future plans?

In the best sense of the word, Fuduntu could still be called an amateur's distribution, in that Wyatt describes the motivation of the project members as "to have fun and to build a fantastic desktop that works for us." However, the price of popularity is increased costs, including new dedicated build hosts.

Coping with its unexpected popularity, the Fuduntu team tries to minimize costs by hosting the project on SourceForge and by what Wyatt calls a "lights out policy," explaining that "there is a script that runs on each of the build hosts, and, if certain criteria are met (no users or screen sessions, [or an] idle processor), it will automatically power off after testing for the conditions three times over a period of 15 minutes."

These efforts, Wyatt says ensure that "My monthly out of pocket spending is reasonable. The project expenses are mostly covered through Google AdSense, and project donations."

Having just switched from relying on Fedora 14's repositories to hosting its own, Fuduntu's immediate priority is to add source packages to its offerings. However, in the longer term, the distribution's policy seems to consist of "wait and see", as Wyatt described:

While we will always follow what everyone else is doing, and perhaps pull in ideas that make sense, I believe we have a solid foundation today. I don't see too many major changes in the near term, because everyone seems to be happy where we are today. For the moment, our direction is to simply roll forward, continuing our philosophy of making small incremental improvements that minimize impact to our user base.

In other words, Fuduntu seems, both financially and philosophically, likely to continue much as it has been for the immediate future. Although its long term development is less clear, for now Fuduntu seems to be delivering what both its contributors and users want.

Comments (2 posted)

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