Microsoft’s next-generation Vista promises to deliver radically improved graphics for end-users, promising 3D-accelerated user interfaces and special effects that will dramatically improve the way a user relates to the computing experience, similar to what current owners of Apple Macintosh systems enjoy. Meanwhile on the Linux front, Red Hat and Novell have been spearheading the development of their own next-generation display subsystems, and Red Hat is among the first to include it in a freely released operating system: Fedora Core 6.
A line has been drawn. Apple’s MacOS X and the free Linux desktop now possess modern 3D accelerated user interfaces that are absolutely top-notch, and Microsoft, as yet, does not. This marks the second time Microsoft has lagged behind Linux in terms of a major feature being shipped with its desktop OS (the first being desktop search, also integral parts of MacOS X and many Linux desktops), and it’s a clear indication that the times are beginning to change.
I say beginning, because the revolution is indeed just getting started. Linux has yet to be blessed with an overwhelming quantity of high-end commercial applications. It also has yet to reach that tipping point where the average user can sit down and make a pleasant remark about their Linux experience from beginning to end.
But with Fedora Core 6, the foundations for those two things have been set.
Fedora Core 6 follows up version 5 with the latest version of GNOME, the latest core Linux components (kernel 2.6.18, glibc 2.5) and dramatic functional improvements in some of its most important components.
Improvements for End-Users
As mentioned, the first and most noticeable of these is the new ‘desktop effects’ control panel, which provides the user with the option to enable the new 3D accelerated GUI. For those not familiar, this subsystem offloads the ‘compositing’, or actual drawing of the screen contents onto the processing component of modern graphics cards, known as a GPU. This enables the operating system to draw graphics onto the screen more quickly and with less negative impact on the rest of the computer as far as slowing it down. It also has the benefit of enabling the operating system to apply any number of special effects to the screen contents. When this subsystem is enabled, windows, menus and other screen elements have subtle shadows beneath them, giving them the effect of being layered on top of each other in a 3 dimensional environment. Windows and menus also shimmer and fade in and out of view when opened and closed, giving the user an almost tactile sensation when interacting with the computer. Overall, these effects can be far more pleasing to the eye and are proven to help users better relate to computing metaphors, making them a more than worthwhile addition to the Linux desktop.
Some examples of the new graphical engine in action – note the translucency in titlebars, window shadows, and the terminal application.
The flagship personal information manager Evolution has also received a great deal of attention from its developers, and was thankfully included in this latest release. Among the improvements in Evolution are dramatic performance improvements in IMAP support, as well as renewed support for Microsoft Exchange mailsystems. This newly reintroduced functionality will make it far more attractive for corporate clients to introduce Linux based desktop systems into their existing environment.
This release of Fedora Core also includes a newly revamped version of GnuCash, a free personal finance application. It’s important to note that neither Apple nor Microsoft have included personal finance management tools in their products, and seem not to consider these an important addition.
Under the Hood
Core components of the system have also received some pretty important enhancements – the time it takes applications to launch has been significantly reduced due to a new method of linking together shared libraries. The font manager has been upgraded and this new version includes a much lower memory footprint and better performance, so applications making use of many fonts like word processors and desktop publishing will perform better. Other improvements include better performance in the package manager and the filesystem.
High-End Computing Features
For power users, this new version includes administration tools enabling easier management of some state of the art features, including:
- Virtual machine creation and management
- Improved support for SELinux
- A graphical tool enabling the user to manage clustered volumes
- Support for booting/installing on new Intel based Macintosh computers.
For the software industry at large to adopt a new platform, it must be shown to be mature and capable of supporting the design and release of commercial applications. It also has to demonstrate that it can be comfortably used by average people, and computer manufacturers have to be confident in this to the extent that they’ll market their computers with it. It has to be compatible with competitive products, allowing users to share files and other information with users of Apple and Microsoft systems. Most importantly, the platform must prove itself to be stable and reliable over the long-haul.
Fedora Core 6 is the second slam-dunk for Red Hat on the desktop front in all these categories.