My personal view of Fedora versus Ubuntu on the desktop

August 24, 2013

It all started with a series of tweets (1, 2) where I wound up saying:

I have a lot of history with [Fedora on my desktop] and it still seems to be the best of a bad lot of choices. Ubuntu makes me even more unhappy.

This made me really think about what I felt about Ubuntu and Fedora. The following are my own views about my personal usage and I don't expect anyone else to agree with them. They are also more than a little bit inflammatory, but I don't feel like lying about my views.

I run Fedora on my desktop and am unlikely to ever run Ubuntu for several major reasons:

  • Having worked with both, I feel that RPMs are a better packaging format in practice than Debian .debs for both source and binary packages. (Yes, I care about this a fair bit.)

  • Ubuntu is not meaningfully a community distribution. Regardless of the official stance, it is really Canonical's distribution (Canonical's attempts to fool people about this leave a bad taste in my mouth, but that's a side issue).
  • I don't believe in the direction that Canonical is taking Ubuntu's user interface and design. I don't believe that it's possible to have a single interface that is good for tablets, phones, and regular desktops with keyboards and mice and (multiple) monitors, and Canonical is clearly focusing on tablets and phones, not desktop computers.

I've said plenty of bad things about Gnome 3 in Fedora and the direction the Gnome standard desktop is going, but at least the current Gnome philosophy is not the official viewpoint of the distribution and there are plenty of real alternatives (I'm running one on my laptop). Unity is the official 'this is the way it is going to be' interface of Canonical. Everything else is at best a second class citizen.

Oh, Canonical may not admit that or say it outright but come on, everyone knows what the score is. Canonical doesn't give a rat's rear end for anything except Canonical's priorities. This handily brings me to a final issue:

  • I no longer trust Canonical itself to have any real care for my interests or the interests of open source and Linux in general. What made this crystal clear to me was Canonical deciding to ship user desktop searches off to Amazon for affiliate revenue and never mind any of the many, many problems with this.

(I'm aware that I'm late to the party on this one.)

If Fedora screws something up, I have confidence that it is going to be inadvertent and that there are real people there who care. Canonical? No. If I put Ubuntu on my desktop I'd be just as much at the mercy of an uncaring corporation as if I used OS X or Windows. And that corporation has demonstrated that its priorities and interests are very divergent from mine.

So the short version: Canonical is going to do whatever it feels like, it's going to periodically do bad things to me, and it's not even going to produce a desktop that I like. And there is no chance that Canonical is going to listen to me, either individually or en masse. Canonical has a goal and I am just a bystander (since I use a desktop machine, an unimportant one).

(We continue to use Ubuntu for servers on an LTS release to LTS release basis. It remains the best Linux server distribution I know of for our purposes, which require a blend of long support, reasonably frequent releases with current packages on release, and a wide package selection.)

Sidebar: smaller reasons

  • Fedora is better than Debian at moving forward. Sometimes this is not a great thing and I've heard rumbles that Fedora is slipping, but on the whole I like the results.

  • relatedly, I think that Fedora is generally making good technical choices when it moves forward. Debian has visibly fumbled several important issues that Fedora has gotten right (cf).

  • Ubuntu is worse than Debian at making good technical choices, as hard as that is to believe. Especially, Canonical seems to have a terrible case of Not Invented Here syndrome, which is deadly in the open source Linux world. Exhibit one of this for me is their grim insistence on sticking with upstart for their init system.

  • I don't think that Canonical is really committed to open source in their heart. Instead open source is a strategic choice for them, one I expect them to abandon when and where it is convenient. I can't imagine Fedora or Debian doing this; both are really committed to the spirit of open source, not just its legalities.

Debian people will be unhappy with me for saying this, but in general I've wound up feeling that Fedora gets stuff done and Debian doesn't. And yes, I've heard rumbles that Fedora has its share of real internal problems and things are more precarious and problematic than they look from the outside.

(I compare Fedora to Debian since Ubuntu inherits a significant number of things from Debian. Or at least I perceive it as doing so.)

(See also.)

Comments on this page:

By trs80 at 2013-08-25 07:43:38:

Debian has mostly fixed the lib32/64 bit with multiarch dpkg that puts all libraries in /lib/`GNU triplet` (notably Ubuntu got there first). You are the only person I know of who prefers RPM to dpkg - I'll agree that debconf can have problems, but the rest of the ecosystem (Debian policy, apt) more than make up for it.

From at 2013-08-25 21:48:28:

Personally. I think that Canonical has tried to work with the Ubuntu community and develop a community orientated distribution.

>> So the short version: Canonical is going to do whatever it feels like

I can see where you are coming from. Particularly on user interfaces, the community needed to move away from Brown/Orange. No idea why this was delayed. The other hard part is that Ubuntu should pull away from the community and focus on the end users (IMHO something more like OSX that people can just put the CD in and use). Instead it has pulled away to embrace the tablet.

Overall Ubuntu seems to have left the good user experiences to Mint and others. I would never recommend Ubuntu now unless you are making your own distribution.

IMHO debs and aptitude/apt-get rock. Most preferable to rpm's.

From at 2013-08-26 07:40:21:

I haven't tried Fedora specifically, but as a mostly Debian/Ubuntu person that has spent the last year using RHEL at work I agree with most of your points. I lost a lot of faith in Canonical over time, and moved back to Debian at home, but now that I'm more familiar with Redhat-style distros I could see myself trying Fedora at home.

I also quite like RPMs (.. and to a lesser degree, yum). To the above commenters, what makes you prefer apt/deb to yum/rpm?

By cks at 2013-08-26 10:25:38:

My experience is that yum is as good as apt for at least ordinary day to day sysadmin use. Yum is now really an essential part of the RPM ecosystem; the rpm command itself has been demoted to essentially the same low-level job that dpkg does on Debian/Ubuntu systems. I personally think that yum's output and operation is better than apt.

Since I see the overall ecosystem as equivalent the flaws in the Debian package format loom large to me. In particular the ability of packages to ask questions at install time is a huge mistake in practice; it enables a raft of terrible habits, including not making decisions on contentious issues. It also badly damages system management automation.

(Yes, everyone now says 'just tell debconf to take the default choice and never ask any questions'. The problem is that you have no guarantee that the default choice is sane and sensible.)

On a side note: I used magic site admin powers to relocate the comment from @ from FedoraVsUbuntu (where it was accidentally left, per a followup comment there that I've now removed) to here.

From at 2013-08-26 11:37:32:

For me, yum's killer feature is 'yum localinstall'. That is, you can download an rpm directly, and then install it directly with all of yum's dependency-resolving goodness (provided that the dependencies all exist in your currently-configred repos, of course). There's no corresponding way do do this with a .deb: you either need to use 'dpkg -i', see broken dependencies, and install them yourself, or install a PPA so APT can see the package in a repo and resolve dependencies as usual.

-Brad Beyenhof

By cks at 2013-08-26 12:47:36:

I've realized that I should say a bit more about Canonical's user interface issues because at on one level these don't seem to apply to me since I use a completely custom desktop. The problem is that running a custom desktop relies on any number of system pieces still working; most obviously, I need a functioning X server. Since Canonical is focused on their UI environment and nothing else, I have no confidence that they will continue to care about and deliver a system that enables any other sort of desktop environment.

In other words I can easily imagine that in N versions Canonical ships Ubuntu with only a Mir server, no X compatibility layer, and no full desktop environments other than Mir-supporting ones (which is likely to be just Unity). This seems perfectly in character with Canonical's drive to only really support what matters to them.

By trs80 at 2013-08-26 18:59:12:

Brad: gdebi is how you install a single .deb with dependencies. It is a bit naff it's a separate tool, and only came about recently.

From at 2013-08-26 19:23:56:

trs80: I don't really need all of those GNOME library dependencies on my headless VPS, but looks cool. I like that it also has --root=<> for an alternate install path.

(As much as I like yum, I still use Debian for personal stuff, due mostly to better package availability. And because I like `aptitude purge ~c`... that's pretty cool. It purges config files for any package that's currently uninstalled.)

- Brad Beyenhof

From at 2013-08-28 15:59:33:

I'm thinking of giving Fedora another chance. You're rants are 100% spot on man.

I generally agree with all of your points. I think all software, including Linux distros have their challenges.

I noticed you said that you use Ubuntu LTS for your servers and I would love to get your feedback on Software Collections vs. Ubuntu LTS:

By cks at 2013-09-23 21:47:23:

My two reactions are that RHEL has ceased being an option for us going forwards (and thus what matters is not packaging for RHEL but for CentOS) and that we don't particularly want two sets of packages, one old one in the standard locations and a new set hanging out in /opt.

In general, Ubuntu LTS continues to be our best choice for a server OS despite all of its various warts. For more discussion of this see here.

Written on 24 August 2013.
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