Open-source guru knocks Fedora

Eric Raymond, influential developer and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, has delivered a public rebuke to Red Hat’s Fedora project.

In a message distributed to several high-profile Linux mailing lists and news organizations, Raymond said he is switching to the Ubuntu distribution after 13 years as a loyal Red Hat user, citing numerous technical and governance problems around Fedora.

Fedora is Red Hat’s freely distributed Linux distribution, and is closely linked to the company’s commercial versions, serving as a testing ground for technologies that will eventually go into Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). It is also intended to form a link between Red Hat and the developer community, but has attracted criticism from developers from 2003, when it replaced the consumer-oriented Red Hat Linux.

Raymond’s open letter refers to previous criticisms, but is the most damning assessment of the project yet to come from such a high-profile figure.

“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,” he wrote. “The blunders have been legion on both technical and political levels.”

He cited technical issues such as the way repositories are maintained, the submission process and “stagnant” development of Red Hat’s packaging technology, RPM, as well as governance problems, the failure to effectively reach for desktop market share and the failure to include proprietary media formats, as well as a more general sense that Fedora is becoming irrelevant.

“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,” he wrote. “I have watched Ubuntu rise to these challenges as Fedora fell away from them.”

Fedora is intended to include only free or open-source components, and doesn’t include, for instance, the codecs that would allow users to watch Windows Media formats, although users can install them. Raymond said a recent deal between Ubuntu’s commercial sponsor, Canonical, and Linspire, which will give Ubuntu access to commercial codecs, shows Canonical and Ubuntu are more forward-thinking.

“Canonical’s recent deal with Linspire… is precisely the sort of thing Red-Hat/Fedora could and should have taken the lead in,” he wrote. “Not having done so bespeaks a failure of vision which I now believe will condemn Fedora to a shrinking niche in the future.”

He argued Fedora has suffered from its dual identity as a user- and developer-oriented distribution and a testbed for Red Hat’s commercial products.

“The Fedora project has never resolved the tension between Red Hat’s business need for it to be an adjunct of RHEL development and its core group’s stated aim to be community-facing,” he wrote. “The result is a sociology that has increasingly combined the least useful features of a corporate project with the least useful snakepit-like features of ‘community’ politics.”

Alan Cox, a core Linux developer and Red Hat employee, in a later post to the Fedora developer list invoked the underlying differences between Raymond’s business-friendly “open source” philosophy and the more ideological “free software” movement that underpins much Linux development.

“We believe in Free Software and doing the right thing (a practice you appear to have given up on),” Cox wrote. “Maybe it is time the term ‘open source’ also did the decent thing and died out with you.”

He said including proprietary components in Fedora Core would cause more problems than it would solve.

“The moment Fedora includes non-free stuff it becomes a problem for all the people who redistribute and respin it, and it becomes unfair in the proprietary world in the eyes of everyone who didn’t get included,” he wrote.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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