Omega: Fedora For The Rest of Us

The Fedora Project is one of the most popular Linux distributions, however its position on non-free software and proprietary codecs isn't for everyone. But thanks to Fedora's ability to create Remix versions of the disto with anything you like, Omega attempts to bridge the divide.

The Fedora Project is one of the most popular Linux distributions and has been ever since Red Hat announced its creation in 2003. It is a free and open source operating system which came about as a merger between some of their commercial products. It was to be a community driven project, built entirely on free software and would be the upstream for Red Hat Enterprise Linux offerings. Even though it remains a community distribution, numerous Red Hat employees are involved and help set the direction of the project.

Usually more interested in the enterprise server side, Red Hat has recently been focusing on contributions to the desktop, which some suggest might see them make a move back to this sector. This extra attention has resulted in a great many improvements to Fedora 11 (dubbed “Leonidas”) which has no fewer than fifty-two new official features, many of which are a first for any Linux distribution.

This sponsorship and involvement in the project by Red Hat, has meant that Fedora has also adopted many of the company’s perspectives on non-free proprietary codecs and drivers. As such the project also emphasizes the use of free and openly specified formats for data, as well as free software.

The Fedora wiki entry on licensing states: “The goal of the Fedora Project is to work with the Linux community to create a complete, general purpose operating system exclusively from Free and Open Source software. All software in Fedora must be under licenses in the Fedora licensing list. This list is based on the licenses approved by the Free Software Foundation, OSI and consultation with Red Hat Legal.”

So Fedora doesn’t ship proprietary drivers, which are non-free. They also don’t ship support for various proprietary file formats due to the risks associated with software patents, even though they may be supported using entirely free software such as GStreamer. Each piece of software distributed must also be under an approved license and not violate any known software patents. It’s a conscious decision from Red Hat and one which has helped to make it the number one Linux vendor in the world, having recently been added to Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index. While others have caved to the pressure, Red Hat has also rejected Microsoft’s attempts at patent agreements around Linux and free software. This anti-software patent perspective and the fundamental belief in free software flows onto the Fedora project.

There are many opposing camps in the Linux world. There are those who believe that all proprietary drivers and non-free software should be welcomed and that users’ data should be accessible in any format, even if closed source and patent encumbered. The other side of the fence believe in the use of only free codecs, file formats and free software, to prevent vendor lock-in and ensure the user remains in control of their information.

This sort of issue illustrates a major difference between many of the popular distros today. While Fedora focuses on the best free software available, ensuring your data is free and accessible, others want to ensure everything works at the cost of continued reliance on non-free codecs. The former perspective has helped to make some extremely successful, especially for users new to Linux, but where does it leave us in the long run?

The problem is that many new users don’t have a firm grasp on the concept of free culture. As such, they come from a world where proprietary data formats and closed source applications is the norm. For these users, a majority of their data will be inaccessible by default should they switch to a free-software only focused Linux distribution. So what to do?

Due to their stance on non-free software, it’s impossible for the project to support all of these proprietary codecs and drivers out of the box. Of course many of us can appreciate that point of view, but when it comes to wanting things to “just work,” Fedora can end up looking bad.

That isn’t to say that there is absolutely no support for all of these extras. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Fedora community has a huge repository called RPM Fusion which is dedicated to both free and non-free software, proprietary video drivers, codecs and everything needed to ensure new users can access everything they expect. However none of this is included or enabled in the default distribution and getting it all working is a hard task for someone new to Fedora.

If you’re a long term user of Linux, it’s possible that the majority of your data is already in free formats, but how do you get those other users onto the operating system you love when it won’t support their data out of the box? Fortunately, there is a collection of software available which allows any user to create their own version of Fedora (called a Remix), which can include all of those extras and indeed anything else.

Omega is one such remix. Created by Rahul Sundaram, the remix is a desktop oriented installable Live CD which includes the latest official updates, as well as the RPM Fusion repositories pre-configured. Rahul himself has been involved in Fedora for around five years, taking on various roles including documentation writer, reviewer, package maintainer, as well as mentoring new contributors and generally helping out users in the Fedora community. He was also part of the first public Fedora Board which oversees the project.

Rahul aims to address some fundamental issues within the Fedora community, the first being multimedia. He wrote to linuxdlsazine saying:

“Fedora is a distribution that champions free and open source software innovation. One of the problems we cannot just hack our way through in Fedora is the thorny issue of software patents and the deep impact it has in free software. Within the Fedora Project, we do several things to limit the damage of patents, including sponsoring the development of Thusnelda, the new Ogg Theora video codec with much better quality that is going to be part of Fedora 12, our next release.

I am trying to tackle the problem in a different way by connecting the dots to another Fedora community, the one around RPM Fusion. RPM Fusion was merger of a number of third party repositories for Fedora that were filling in the gaps by providing software that Fedora couldn’t or didn’t. I talked to them into splitting up the repository into two sections, free and non-free. The free repository had software that was free and open source that Fedora would love to include but couldn’t because of the patent problem. Non-free was of course all sorts of proprietary or semi-proprietary software that Fedora just didn’t want to include. In Omega, I include both these repositories but only install some of the software from the Free repository by default that solves the multimedia problem by playing all the usual content out of the box.”

The second major issue Rahul addresses with Omega has to do with updates. He writes:

“Fedora being a platform for contributors, we strive to stay close to upstream. We develop and integrate many of the key infrastructure pieces of the Linux ecosystem – everything from NetworkManager on the desktop to SELinux on the server and make it available for everybody.

It is quite common to see a number of updates flowing in right after the release. Naturally, these tend to smooth out the rough edges steering the balance towards more robustness from cutting edge innovation of the initial release. Within the Fedora Project, the lifecycle of 13 months is carefully designed to provide some flexibility for Fedora users. Within a new release every six months, a Fedora user can skip a release and wait for a month for the dust from the next release to settle before moving into it.

I roll in the updates from the different repositories for Fedora that is included by default in Omega up until the point I do a release. The value of course is convenience. There is nothing earth shaking about it. If you are a seasoned Fedora user, you can install Fedora, configure the repositories, install the right packages and pull all the updates and you would essentially end up with the same thing but if you are going to the same song and dance every time, you might as well as use the Omega Live CD and save yourself the hassle. For users getting started with Fedora or even Linux on the desktop, it makes it all more accessible.

I am in India where we have fortunately rejected the idea of software patents, but are unfortunately faced with bandwidth problems in many places. Taking advantage of the former and solving the latter is what led to Omega and I hope my work within the Fedora Project and around the boundaries of it serves a useful purpose to many users.”

Any user can install Fedora and configure the RPM Fusion repositories to gain support for the proprietary (and possible patent encumbered) formats using only free software. Naturally, they can also update the system to ensure they have the latest software. So while Omega doesn’t offer any new base level features that aren’t already available to users of Fedora, what it does is make it all the more accessible to those who need them.

Rahul writes:

“All of the software comes from within the Fedora community, albeit some of it my own work. I am merely rearranging a few Lego blocks and solving a few problems that I think are worth solving and sharing the work. I am also doing another Fedora Remix for a local Linux user group that has some specific requirements for students. That’s the whole point of Fedora Remixes. To the extent that it has proven useful to these users, that is a reward in itself. Setting aside everything else, it has certainly been useful as a learning experience for me. I have now more respect and understanding of the amount of work it really takes to release something like Fedora and the community that delivers it.”

So while it might just be a remix of Fedora with extra repositories, the ability to boot an installable Fedora Live CD which will read any data is a huge asset to the community, especially when it comes to attracting new users. The benefits don’t stop there, as Rahul explains: “Ever since the idea of Fedora Spins were born, I have latched on to it as a means of demonstrating what freedom in software means in practical means instead of merely being a abstract concept. If you start looking at Fedora releases and Fedora Spins as merely samples of the possibilities, then it becomes less of a product and more a means of participation. I maintained the Fedora Games Spin, Fedora Xfce Spin and did several locale specific ones as well.

After a while, the concept evolved a bit more and when the new Fedora project trademark guidelines were being proposed, I suggested “Remix” as the term we adopt for community variants of Fedora. This was accepted and new opportunities opened up. Unlike the official spins, anyone in the community can take Fedora modify the software as they see fit, use it or distribute it to anybody. You can take advantage of the work done by a large Fedora community and redefine it easily. We have the ability to rebrand the distribution easily, I took the next step and did the first release of Omega soon after Fedora 10 originally more as a show case of what a Fedora Remix could mean just as Fedora itself is a show case of the latest free and open source software. Soon after the release, I got thousands of downloads and good feedback. One of the things that was surprising even to me was the amount of users doing their our custom Live CD’s based on the work I had done which itself was heavily based on the work of many dedicated Fedora community members. That is free software doing its magic. Kickstart files that we used to create a Fedora Spin or Remix just makes the process very easy. After the release of Fedora 11, I have continued my work after being coaxed a bit by more users asking for it.

I hope to get more users and contributors for Fedora by providing Omega as a stepping stone and encourage more people in the community to envision and demonstrate their idea of a Linux distribution via Fedora.”

The strict adherence to free software principles might look like it’s “getting in the way,” but it is the exact thing that has made Linux great in the first place. Of course, at the end of the day the user has a right to choose what they will use and how, just as Fedora has a right to decide what they will ship. Is it better to have a distro which can read all data at the cost of freedom, or one which won’t at the cost of new users? Currently the majority still live in a world of proprietary data and if we are to succeed in migrating them to Linux, perhaps this is a small price to pay? Once across, users could be taught the dangers of proprietary drivers and codecs and enlightened on the benefits of free formats. If they never get here in the first place due to lack of accessibility on their data however, that would be a great shame. Perhaps a balance lies somewhere in the middle, but while it remains elusive the battle between free, non-patent encumbered software and the desire to ensure all data is accessible will undoubtedly rage on.

In relation to his project which includes support for these formats by default, Rahul says:

“I am a big believer in open formats but I don’t think Linux distributions are affecting consumers choices yet, as far as multimedia formats is concerned. Many of them, including Fedora, are beginning to incorporate Firefox 3.5 which ships with Ogg support built-in and that has the potential to change the game. Let’s look at the current situation. Converting a lossy format such as MP3 into another lossy format like Ogg Vorbis would really mean you are bound to lose some quality in the process. If you already have a collection of MP3 songs, converting them into any other format may not be worth it. To really change the dynamics, compelling original content needs to be delivered in open formats in the first place.

Websites like Wikipedia and Daily Motion producing such content and programs like Firefox 3.5 in Fedora 11 being able to access them out of the box puts open formats in a competitive position. If you are creating content, you should definitely opt for open formats and if you have the choice for consuming content in open formats as well, go for it. Tools to produce content in open formats are beginning to mature as well. If Google would switch to Ogg Theora on YouTube or even provide it as a alternative as part of their adoption of HTML 5, it would change the situation drastically. Hopefully we see the tide continue to move our way.”

Hopefully, over time the need for and reliance on proprietary drivers and codecs will disappear as users realize the benefits of free culture. While proprietary formats remain a reality, Omega looks to be a good alternative for users who are new to Linux and want all their data and hardware to work as expected. So if the original release of Fedora may appear to be a let down, try Omega and enjoy the pleasure of having everything work more easily.

Of course, if Omega is not your cup of tea either, the ability to remix Fedora is available to anyone. So if you have a great idea, why not share it with the community and see where it might lead? It could be the next big thing.