It has been great to see Fedora 12 release this week. Apart from the major kerfuffle over PackageKit (which I understand, even if I don’t recognise the problem), it seems to have gone really well – especially since the reaction in the critical press has been surprisingly un-critical. Hardware support seems to be good, including graphics, which is slightly surprising given the huge amount of change in this area, viz.:
“So, of the four “major” distributions over the past month (Ubuntu 9.10, Mandriva 2010, openSuSE 11.2 and Fedora 12), the only one that didn’t crash, hang or otherwise misbehave on at least one of my laptop/netbook/nettop systems was Fedora.” – “Saving the ‘Best’ for Last“, J A Watson at ZDNet.
I think this is a tremendous accomplishment by the people working on this stuff, and the release team, given the short and punchy nature of this development schedule. Fedora 13 has a great base to start from, although it also has to live up to what seems to be a pretty good Fedora 12 release.
It was also interesting to see that news of Google’s Chrome OS hasn’t really overshadowed the release: yes, people are writing a bit about it, but it hasn’t really set the world alight in the same way Wave did a few weeks ago. And you know what – I think it’s because it’s really not a terribly hot idea. In fact, I would say that Fedora 12 and Gnome Shell (the preview of part of Gnome 3) is actually a better Chrome OS than Chrome OS.
The stuff that Chrome supposedly brings to the table, I already have. My netbook unsuspends in 5 seconds flat, and it lives its life “on”. This fast boot stuff is basically worthless to me. The user experience of Chrome OS is surprisingly close to what Gnome Shell already offers; and of course I’m able to run proper applications not just web-based ones. And, actually, I think Moblin actually gets a lot of this stuff right already: particularly the deep integration between the desktop shell and web applications. If I’m honest, this just looks to me like another Google “re-invent the world and outspend the people already innovating in this area”-type project. If Google were not so fat on advertising revenue, there is no way they could make a play like this.
And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sold on the people already innovating in this area already. I’ve written before about litl’s webbook – which ChromeOS seems to be aimed squarely at. If I were litl, I would be pretty deeply worried, since a web-based OS with Ubuntu underpinnings running on custom hardware is basically a rough description of both projects. And you can bet that Google (or, their hardware partners) aren’t going to be knocking these out at $700 a pop.
I’m deeply unconvinced by this “web apps only” approach, anyway. A browser is not the be all and end all, and files exist on disk for a reason: “it’s too complex for normal people” argument just does not stack up at all. What ChromeOS, and litl and others, are doing is saying “we can make a computing experience as simple as a television”, which is fine. But then you get a computing experience just like a television, with minimal interactivity and flexibility. I mean, custom hardware is great, but one size doesn’t fit all – you have to talk to cameras, printers, mobile phones, and all manners of other gadgetry. That needs OS support. Are Google going to come up with some kind of USB-to-website system so my camera’s photos can be uploaded via flikr? In what world of UI interaction does that even make sense?
What you end up with is an emasculated system where apps don’t talk to each other or share content easily (can you insert images into Google Docs directly from flikr?). It’s entirely retrograde, and a non-compelling view of computing which limits users to various hard-coded paths of functionality. For simple stuff like sending e-mail or browsing the news online, it’s fine. For “harder” stuff like attaching a document to an e-mail: well, you’d better hope that you use Google Docs and GMail and that those apps can talk to each other. Better hope, though, you don’t have a video camera and want to edit some clips – there’s no website for that yet, so you’re stuffed, bud. And even when it arrives, it’s going to take a while to upload those hundreds of megabytes of Little Eric walking for the first time, because that ADSL connection you have with 8Mb download has only a 512K upload.
It’s clear these “computers” are only going to have a very limited appeal. And this, to me, is where Fedora (and other free OSes) shine. You can have the Moblin interface, or a proper Gnome desktop. The hardware support is great; it will work on your netbook or on your full desktop. You can make the choice to cut down and simplify the interface, and not lose the ability to run the more complicated apps.
If I were to prognosticate, I would say that litl will be around for maybe a couple of years, but not much more. ChromeOS, Moblin and the like will find their place on cheap photo-frame-like touch PCs which people will scatter around the home, but there will still be a real PC in the corner.