Some Linux distributions never change

In early February I had mentioned in passing that I had installed Fedora 21 on a new laptop. As it happens, I uninstalled Fedora from the same laptop this week, grabbed the latest iso of Arch Linux from the 1st of February, ran it, installed it. Setting Arch Linux scares many people, as the distribution is designed around the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle. As a result, the installation happens through command line and may take some time to process since the user is in charge of the choice of packages installable.

I started to use Arch Linux some time in December 2010 and have been using ever since. Not counting this new laptop, I reinstalled it twice on my workstation and twice on my former laptop. 3 times over 4 I was responsible for the mistake that led to the reinstallation. I have been testing and using Fedora ever since Fedora Core 6. What’s really funny, in a sense, is that I’ve been using various Linux distributions since 2001 and in 15 years I have seen many improvements but for some odd reason each distribution carries some sort of “DNA” that hardly changes over time. Mageia and OpenMandriva both provide this intuitive way of installing new software and handling new hardware that made Mandrake Linux famous. Fedora used to be rocky. Things would crash out of nowhere. Things did improve of course over time. But while I would call Fedora 21 a very well polished distribution, I would not call it well finished. Let me explain.

Fedora 21 comes -just like many other Fedora releases- with great default settings and little details, anLogo_fedoralogo impeccable (the best one?) packaging and distribution of the KDE desktop; great tools for security and some very useful configurations for them. This does sound good, doesn’t it? Except that out of nowhere, Gnome-Shell would crash as soon as GTK+ software (except Evolution) would start. I tried several ways to fix it. To this day I don’t know the solution; it seems it’s related to the Intel driver of the graphics component; but I’m not even sure of that. Another irritating thing is Gnome Software: it will display all sorts of fantastic messages about “important” upgrades that are available, will not process them most of the time, and when I want upgrades that are available anyway and I click to install them, Gnome Software won’t execute. Now, I must admit I’m not overly bothered by that since I was mostly relying on Yum and the command line. But that is the same kind of oddities I was having in Fedora Core 6; and Fedora Core 8; and Fedora Core 9.

archlinux-logo-dark-1200dpi.b42bd35d5916In comparison, the set-up of Arch Linux was a breeze and extremely fast once the hard drive partionning was figured out. I got a laptop that isn’t UEFI enabled so I had more choices and did not have to go through the rather complex tools such as parted or gdisk. I got to use cfdisk which I have relied on for several years.

This is however not a blog to bash Fedora. Again, I found the KDE distribution to be stunning; so was the Cinnamon desktop.
I want to stress that I am amazed at how little Linux distributions change in their behaviour, their character and their philosophy. For a while, I thought journalists helped propagate and convey some agreed-on role for each distribution; that it was perhaps easier for them and easier for their audience to identify each distro with some set of convenient tags. But I think that is not exactly what is going on; distributions do not inherently change as to what they are and the experience they offer, no matter what package version they provide compared to their competitor.

I do not believe it is a bad thing; it means precisely that there is something deeply human, or at least some sort of a soul that keeps most distributions from being “just” a set of packaged software glued around a kernel and a filesystem. Of course it does not mean there is no innovation ongoing: SE Linux, systemd, Gnome Shell, Plasma… they all keep the game rather interesting. But the next time you think about switching to another distribution, remember you’re not just switching to another “system” but to a distinct and at times subtle experience that makes Linux all the more interesting and kept it so for many years.

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