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Linux Mint – the taste of success

Linux User sits down with Mint creator Clement Lefebvre to get a measure of the past, present and future of one of the biggest success stories in Linux distro history…

What are your earliest memories of computing and how did you catch the bug?
I remember running Windows and DOS back in the Nineties on our home personal computer. That’s what everybody did back then and all we knew about. Then I got into university and came face to face with UNIX, central servers, multiple accounts, X11 terminal clients and access to the internet. That was a fantastic experience. Eventually, floppy disks of GNU/Linux spread around the campus and word got out that you could run UNIX at home! It was Slackware at the time; I even remember them being distributed by Walnut Creek. 🙂

So that’s how it started for me. I didn’t have any sound and it took me entire days to configure X11, but I had it at home and I was delighted with it. The structure of a UNIX system, the commands, processes, permissions, how predictable and reliable it was. I loved it.

How did this love of Slackware transition into your current work on Linux Mint?
To me, free software was a revelation… there was no distinction between open source and free software at the time, very little proprietary technology was compatible with Linux and the OS wasn’t mainstream at all. In fact it was almost only run by hobbyists and students. People were pioneering with these technologies, it was the start of the internet at home, and it made a lot of sense not only to think of open source as the way to code and share code, but also as a philosophy in life…

That had a huge impact on me, on how I approach technology and even how I live my life with people around me. With that said, I’m pragmatic and when I think of freedom I think of choice, so I’m more about doing what I want and liking for people to be able to do what they want, than restricting myself and others to conform to strict ideals. It just happens that I personally think the best way to do software is to do it in an open manner, so that’s what I do and that’s why I like free software. That said, I don’t restrict myself to it, though.

Mint itself started as an experiment and as I got more and more feedback about it and got more and more interest and ambitious with its goals, eventually it became extremely serious.

Why do you think Mint is proving so popular with today’s Linux user?
Because it’s what people want. The vast majority of features and improvements which make it to each Linux Mint release come from ideas and feedback contributed to us by the community. Linux Mint is easy to use, it’s comfortable and it packs some of the most advanced features available in desktop Linux nowadays, but the main thing about it is that it brings to people what they need, what they want and what they ask for.

Of course, now and then we go against popular opinions when we know it’s going to work and people just need some time to get to like it. But that’s very rare and when we do that we make sure we justify our choices and explain them to our users. Feedback is extremely important to us and we regard our community as our most precious asset.

What was your initial reaction to the news that GNOME 2 was being laid to rest?
I thought it was idiotic. I agree with what Linus said about it and the thing that upset me the most was the fact that nobody cared about what people wanted. GNOME 3 could have used a different name, or at least been packaged with new libs and in a way that allowed people to continue to run GNOME 2. The way it was done, you could only replace GNOME 2 with GNOME 3, not run both.

GNOME 2 is the most popular Linux desktop out there and a few people decided we were no longer going to use it. Of course, people always get what they want – MATE will bring back GNOME 2, but it will take time to get right.

GNOME 3 has had some time to mature – is it a good-enough base for Linux distributions?
I think GNOME 3 looks good as a base. Technologically it’s superior and more interesting than GNOME 2. From a user experience point of view, however, it comes with a lot of regressions, so it needs a lot of work, but it has a lot of potential.

What do you think of Unity for Ubuntu, and do you plan to ever offer it with Mint?
I’m not interested in Unity, but… I think they made a choice and that choice doesn’t suit part of their user base. I’ve no doubt Canonical know what they’re doing and the direction they’re going – they’re not experimenting with Unity, they’re building the Ubuntu of tomorrow. So in that respect I think they’re doing great. The direction they’re heading towards and the markets they’re targeting simply aren’t the ones we’re interested in, though.

Ubuntu and, to a lesser extent Linux Mint, have dominated the Linux desktop market for a while. Since the switch to Unity, many Ubuntu users have been looking for alternatives, and we did see a significant part of their user base switch to Linux Mint. For us that’s positive: more users means more feedback, more support, more funding, but it also comes with its own challenges.

So there’s no danger of ever seeing Unity implemented in Linux Mint. What is it that switches you off to it?
There’s no demand for Unity within the Linux Mint community. Since most users dislike it, we’re not considering supporting it.
Whether it’s the global menu bar, the buttons on the left, the dock or the fact that important use cases took a hit when it comes to productivity, it reminds me of Mac OS. I don’t like Mac OS, and that’s probably the main reason I have no interest in Unity. This is just me, though, and it’s irrelevant when it comes to Linux Mint supporting Unity. The real factor here isn’t my personal opinion of it – it’s the fact that there simply is no demand for this desktop at the moment.

You’ve released Cinnamon – tell us why you think it’s an important offering for Mint 12 and other distros…
Cinnamon and Muffin are alternatives to GNOME Shell and Mutter respectively. They use the same technology and sit on top of GNOME 3. They provide people with a new modern desktop which looks as polished as the new generation of desktops, but doesn’t try to reinvent the way people use their computer.

Canonical and GNOME want to break with the traditional paradigms and change the way you navigate and interact with the computer. To me that looks like R&D, and although it’s extremely interesting from a hobbyist point of view, when it comes to being productive with a desktop computer it’s not what people want.

You can’t suddenly discontinue what everybody uses and tell people it’s gone. Many people want to continue to run a traditional desktop, and so one of our biggest priorities as a distribution is to make it possible for them to do so. In that respect, MATE and Cinnamon are extremely important. MATE will get closer and closer to what GNOME 2 was. Cinnamon will innovate aggressively, but also incrementally and with care and respect for what people expect and already like.

You can read the full interview with Linux Mint creator, Clement Lebebvre in issue 110 of Linux User, which is on sale now