Skip to content

Is Fedora for newbies?

Last week I responded to an email sent to the address. Most of the replies we make to those emails are stock-answers, such as when they email that Fedora stole their website and replaced it with “your page,” or a pointer to the Fedora communicate and get help page. I felt compelled to respond to this one because the person seemed to have so widely missed the mark that I was sure he wasn’t going to email fedora-list to continue the Q&A.

The situation was typical, with a twist that hit me a bit personally: he got this great thing for no cost but it was broken because his usual stuff didn’t work (meaning multimedia codecs and a Flash player); when he tried to fix it, he was told he had to pay for something that he should get in the distro for free (meaning he hit Codeina and the for-sale codecs from Fluendo); and Fedora was obviously not interested in newbie users like him if we couldn’t get this basic stuff right.

If you guessed that the twist that hit me was the reference to Codeina/CodecBuddy etc., that was it. However, it was easy to respond by pointing at the Wikipedia page on gratis vs. libre. IMO, that is the crux of the situation. He is used to getting something for no cost, where the real costs are actually hidden elsewhere or secretly shifted over to him in the form of legal risks and restrictions on his freedom. I should have known that a subtle argument like that isn’t going to work without some explanation.

The point that I keep going over in my mind, “Is Fedora trying to be a distro for newbies?” is beginning to answer itself. Jono Bacon from Ubuntu pointed out that Fedora ships non-free firmware, and in his opinion isn’t any more or less free /ethical than Ubuntu. You can hear it in this audiocast, it starts at 30:15. He may be totally right about that. The difference is in distro goals. Last week I had dinner with Christer Edwards, who has been doing Ubuntu stuff for a long time. To paraphrase him, he said that Ubuntu’s goal is to not abandon the newbie user. To make sure that all documentation and tools begin at the most basic level and work someone upwards. In this they make a few compromises, from codecs to carrying patches on Debian and upstream, but only when it is necessary to keep the user experience from sucking.

You know what? That is a great goal to have. Because of it, Ubuntu is introducing many people to a 95%+ free and open source software experience. Arguably much better than, say, 0% or 20%. (Yay Firefox, the cross-distro open source bunker buster!)

But that doesn’t make it the best goal for Fedora to have, just because it is a best goal for someone else to have. I think Fedora is taking the long view when setting goals, and we have proven, since before there was a Fedora, that this methodology is better for the advancement of free/libre and open source software. There are always easy ways to get new people involved in using FLOSS. Fedora is working on the more interesting and rewarding, IMHO, problem of getting people involved in contributing to FLOSS.

Rather than dispose of the entire morning where I couldn’t help myself in responding, I’ve decided to publish most of the email I wrote here. If you are reading this on the Fedora Planet, the idiom “preaching to the choir” is applicable.
Perhaps it will be useful to someone in some other way. (The text from the original writer is completely changed but accurate as to content and context. This is an entirely original work of mine and I am not exposing any details of the actual email I received.) Read on for the full response …

On Mon, 2008-05-19 at 08:24 -0400, A. Writer wrote:

In linking to an article about the difference between libre and gratis, you failed to answer many of the arguments and points I made.

I wasn’t intending to be rude but I chose to ignore them. They seemed predicated on the idea that Fedora is doing something for you for no cost (gratis), is somehow forcing you to do something for cost that should be “free” (gratis), and is obligated to provide what you feel are the base necessities. None of which is necessarily true. I hear you saying that the highest thing Fedora could be doing is being easy for newbie users, which is also not necessarily true. No-cost and usability-over-freedom are not the goals of Fedora.

The points you raise have been discussed and beaten to death inside and outside of the Fedora community, and will likely continue to do so for a long time. I didn’t want to be rude and totally ignore your entire discussion, but these questions have been asked and answered many times. I hear you say in your writing that you are not willing to do the research to understand and it should be done for you. The best I can do is point you at some answers that apply to you:

You will find answers about Flash, multimedia, and so forth. I’ll be glad to help make clear why those situations are as they are. Be aware they are well thought out positions, many arrived at with the help of lawyers who are intellectual property and free software experts.

You mention the situation where you are offered a chance to legally purchase software that legally includes codecs that Fedora cannot ship. That process was intended as a way to improve the situation for users. Obviously that hasn’t work as it should, in fact the whole thing has been a bit of a debacle. But it is all an honest attempt to work within the confines of the law and the need for freedom. Situations such as Firefox offering to help you install the Flash plugin do work, for the most part. Where Fedora only has software that is free and open source, you as a user can choose to download and install whatever software you want. Fedora won’t make that choice for you. The Fedora Project won’t restrict your freedom of choice or any other freedom with the software in Fedora.

As you may know, there are other distros willing to compromise their user’s freedom for short term gain. I say short term, because the argument that Flash is pervasive and a requirement is ridiculous. How many years did we not have Flash? How long until Flash is replaced by another must-have proprietary and patent encumbered technology? The way to an entirely free (libre) software stack is not by making what are perceived as short term compromises that tend to stick around for the long haul.

Freedom matters and it makes a difference to stand on that point. It’s not going to win over every person, but who really wants 6 billion users? Where is the innovation and competition in that? 🙂

All of the people who use this OS (Fedora), who form a community, are not going to research how to make all of these common multimedia activities work on your OS. I certainly am not going to do that research.

Ironically, the way this whole open source methodology works requires that the community on the whole do the research … to get things working with their operating system.

Once they have done that work, people make it available for others, such as you. In return, you might one day do research or answer questions that help others. It’s a very basic way to contribute, but a very important one.

From how I view the Fedora OS and your response to my questions, you do not seem to have a goal, desire, or plan to make these common multimedia activities work for the “average user.” I am disappointed by this.

Leaving aside whether it is even possible to meet all an “average user” requires with current free and open source software, there is a shifty definition of “works”. What works from one perspective, from another perspective is highly broken — patent encumbered, no license to distribute, and freedom restrictive closed source. What favor is Fedora doing you by giving you pretty gilding for your cage?

In hopes that you one day come to your senses, I will give the Fedora OS another try at some unspecified time in the future. Be aware that when that time comes, I will certainly not pay to make common multimedia activities work with your operating system. Nor will I do further research, such as visit forums or mailing lists, to force other poor souls to do the work that you should be doing already in your OS.

It is from these observations that I sent the last link that explains the difference between libre and gratis for this context.

You want something for no cost that Fedora is not legally able to provide you. As a compromise, Fedora has been trying to make it easier to find software vendors who *can* legally provide that software for you. The whole situation sucks.

For example, how could you possibly imagine that it was sane to have Flash multimedia not work out of the box after install? It is a very common format for media and users expect it to work.

Fedora also doesn’t provide Microsoft Internet Explorer, which is the only browser able to work with certain website software. The list of must-have, non-free software goes on, has for years, and likely will continue onward. Fedora’s stance is simple — free and open source software that is legally distributable. If it clearly infringes on a software patent, the US DMCA law kicks in to effect if Fedora distributes it. At the minimum, Fedora and it’s deep pocketed corporate sponsors are put at risk of a lawsuit. The US is not the only country with these laws.

To gain users of your product amongst the “average user”, you need to make it easily available to them for no cost, then listen to and be respectful of their opinions. You do not need to tell those users what they should do.

Your opinions are respected, but that doesn’t mean they are possible or factual. For example, Fedora is not a product. It is a free and open source software project. There is a world of difference. If you want a product that works out of the box and someone who is paid to support you as an end-user, then you want to purchase one of the many for-pay Linux distributions. This is why I pointed you originally at the libre vs. gratis explanation, then invited you to use the usual communication channels to solve your problems.

The bottom line is, Fedora didn’t make the laws that are causing these problems. If, in navigating that mess, Fedorans like me try a short cut to explain why, it is not intended as rudeness or disrespect of opinions. I’m truly sorry that you feel disrespected.

Your goals for Fedora are unclear to me. Your OS does not seem ready for a new user (a newbie), which I can assert as a newbie.

I respect your opinion here, but I disagree with it. Yet many people, including some who work on and use Fedora, agree with you. This, I think, is one of the reasons Fedora doesn’t make pursuing newbie users the highest project priority. “Ready for newbies” is a very elusive target.

The reason I have given you some existing content to read is to give you an opportunity to understand and respect the (roughly) collective opinion of Fedora.

Good luck,

– Karsten