How Mint became one of the most popular Linux distros
12th May 2013 | 15:00
We speak to the creator of Mint, Clem Lefebvre
What makes Linux Mint so awesome? That, in itself, is quite a question. After all, why do we use Linux? It's one of those questions that can only be answered from the point of view of an individual's personal approach to their experiences with the operating system itself.
For many, Linux Mint is the last bastion of non-commercialised Linux; an environment whereby they can still enjoy the pleasures of the desktop, without having to follow the trend of living in a tabletised world.
For others, Mint has become the very best example of what a Linux desktop should be: fast, easy, pleasing to the eye, useful and productive. Others, still, see Mint as the ideal desktop for Windows refugees, or those who are trying out Linux for the first time, and want an operating system that essentially works 'out of the box', playing any number of media files from a variety of sources.
Whatever the reason, we can be sure that Linux Mint has evolved into something more than just another Linux distribution, and that its popularity has fuelled its own style and usefulness.
In the beginning
It started with a review…
The surprising thing is that Mint was originally just a sideshow to some reviews its creator had written online. Clem Lefebvre explains:
"I was writing for LinuxForums.org at the time, and eventually decided to try and host my own website, so I created LinuxMint.com. Version 1.0 (of the distribution) was a quick experiment to see how some of the ideas I wrote about in my reviews could be implemented. I was surprised to see people were more interested in it than in my articles."
After a while, Clem started to get a flavour for what the people wanted, and he started to get the idea of how he would construct, and create, a distribution himself. Clem then went on to post more articles and tutorials. He saw the innovations of the time, and improved on them, adding his own ideas.
"With version 2 onwards, there was an audience on LinuxMint.com which didn't really care about the articles at all and just wanted to see another release," says Clem. "Bianca (2.2) was the first release which was released with the ambition to establish a new Linux distribution and to compete with the very best."
Linux Mint was being developed during a time that marked the end of the standard operating system desktop, and the beginning of a new-look desktop. Windows XP was starting to look its age, even in 2006, after just five years of life. It was riddled with security flaws, and its drain on system resources was starting to show, even after the launch of service pack two.
Windows Vista appeared early in 2007, and with it came the final nail in the coffin for many disgruntled Microsoft users. Having an operating system that would only run perfectly on a very small population of computers was ridiculous. The hardware requirements for the full set of Vista features catered for roughly 5% of the machines, and users abandoned Windows in their droves.
Linux Mint fitted in nicely, attracting Vista mutineers with an already-packaged Compiz 3D environment, along with media codecs and satisfying visual effects. Existing Linux users saw a desktop that combined all they wanted, without the headache of package installations, dependency woes and outdated control centres.
However, the most significant impression that Linux Mint made was the fact that it listened to its community.
To fill a need
The Mint team took into account all that was said, and religiously took heed of the Mint forums and suggestions. They accepted the contributions of the community, and improved their product based on the feedback from those who were using it in the many ways that only the public can. Can you imagine Steve Ballmer, or Tim Cook altering their systems based on user feedback?
The vibrant Linux community knows what it wants, and even the developers of the more popular distributions of the time, Canonical and Novell OpenSUSE for instance, were settled in their ways, and discouraged the adoption of improvements based on feedback from the user base. This is what formed the rock-solid foundation that Linux Mint was built on.
Its ability to listen, learn and develop around the needs and suggestions of the users created an experience that left a positive mark on those who installed Mint. In fact, of the many who parted ways with their previous operating systems at that time, many have remained faithful to Linux Mint, and even now sing the praises of what can only be described as 'their' operating system. It's one thing to encourage a user to install and use a product, but something else entirely to have that user present six years later, still enjoying it.
Mint: the new Ubuntu?
Common origins but different paths
Clem knew what he was doing when he chose Ubuntu as the basis for Mint. He says:
"Ubuntu was chosen for its package base. It was excellent as a distribution, easy to build upon, it had a frozen cycle… there was no question there, it simply was the best base available, so if I was to base my efforts on an existing package base, it had to be Ubuntu. Other distributions were faster, snappier, or allowed multiple versions of the same software to be installed, but from an overall point of view, Ubuntu was by far the best distribution."
In the years that followed, however, Ubuntu and Mint's paths started to diverge. Ubuntu, for all of its 'Linux for Human Beings' rhetoric, decided to opt for a radical-at-the-time desktop environment. Of course, we are referring to the much maligned Unity; it's remarkable how much animosity can be generated toward the visual interpretation of a few lines of code.
In a community that tolerates almost any eccentricity, Unity was hated as much as any release by the likes of Microsoft. The other offerings from and related to Ubuntu: Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and so on, have kept their theme, and as a result have managed to retain their fan base, but it was the core Ubuntu direction, and its alleged flagrant disregard for heeding the views and opinions of those using the software that forced a number of stalwarts to jump ship.
Many of the refugees of Ubuntu found solace in Linux Mint, which at the time was still operating with a classic Gnome 2 desktop environment; but the world was changing, and the Gnome development team was taking things in one direction, while Ubuntu was taking another.
Mint, finding itself between a rock and hard place, was loath to adopt either the true form of the newly-released Gnome 3, an environment that caused as much controversy as Unity had, or the Ubuntu-implemented Unity. Instead, it employed an eclectic mix of desktops for the user to choose between during installation.
"Many people switched from Ubuntu to Linux Mint in the last two years. According to the feedback we gathered, the main reasons were related to desktop environments," says Clem. "Canonical is a great company, they have talented developers, strong leadership and a clear vision of where they want to go. I'm sure they studied the different markets, and their plan to switch audience certainly makes sense. Do we want to follow them towards touch-interfaces, cloud computing and mobile environments? No. Does it makes sense for them to go there? Probably."
Looking at the previous releases of Mint - from Linux Mint 12: Lisa, based on Ubuntu Oneiric; to Mint number 13: Maya, based on the Precise Pangolin, we see a Linux distribution that offers the advanced and casual user alike an experience that retains the classic look and feel of the desktop, without the commercialisation or look-alike branding that has become the norm.
In particular, we got to enjoy the pleasures of Mate and Cinnamon - considered the true Linux user's desktop environments. In the end, however, after the desktop comparisons, we are left with the available software and the ease of using the operating system. In both cases, the software is similar, as both Mint and Ubuntu share their basic package parentage.
The obvious difference is the Mint-developed, specific additions and innovations, which when combined within the whole package of the operating system, make for a better experience. "I don't like comparing Linux Mint to other distributions, especially as competitors, and especially Ubuntu," says Clem. "They're not just another distribution, they're also an upstream component, which is used in about half of our releases."
"I've often heard people describe Linux Mint as 'Ubuntu done right', or 'what Ubuntu should be'. Although I appreciate when people like what we do, our goal was never to 'improve' Ubuntu or to produce a 'better' Ubuntu. Linux Mint is a different project altogether, with its own goals, its own direction and its own idea of what it should be. Whether you run a Debian-based, an Ubuntu-based, or tomorrow an RPM-based Mint, or a Mint with its own base, it will always feel and run like Mint."
Is the Mint vs Ubuntu debate really only about the look and feel of the desktop? To many that answer is yes; but to those who have used Linux for many years, the answer isn't quite so black and white.
Firstly, there's the political angle: the Linux community has been furrowing its collective brow over Canonical's and Ubuntu's choices in recent years.
With the release of Ubuntu 12.10, the community has finally rolled up its shirt sleeves and prepared to do battle over a number of issues relating to features such as the Amazon shopping lens, which allegedly transmits data to unsecure servers; the ever increasing tablet-centric environment; the lack of ability to customise the operating system; the increasing need for a more powerful computer just to run the basic OS layer; the sudden appearance of a 'how much would you pay for Ubuntu' voluntary (at the moment) donation page; and the overbearing feeling that Valve's interest in Linux, in the form of the closed-source Steam for Linux client, is going to consume the freedom Linux and open source was built on.
"I think [Ubuntu's Amazon advertising tie-up] is clumsy and lacks elegance," says Clem. "That said, we don't ship Google by default, so they're not the only ones creating income sources and trying to make their distribution viable in the long term. I have no idea how much their development costs and how much these Amazon ads generate. Developers cost money and users hate to be taken hostage, so it's important to gather funds but equally as important to do so without hurting the user experience."
Yes, advertising, sponsorship and community donations have fuelled the finances of Linux Mint projects, but it has never been shoved down the throat of the users. And the commercial aspect of any advertising has never appeared in the functioning of the operating system itself.
Mint has also managed to avoid the tablet-esque desktops that its brethren have so readily adopted. We imagine that Mint will offer such elements when the time comes, but on the whole it is a desktop operating system that has, pleasantly surprisingly, catered for the desktop user.
To finalise the argument, the latest version of Linux Mint can run just as effectively on a vintage dual core laptop, with a mere helping of RAM, as it does on an eye-watering Core i7 with gigabytes going spare.
One distro, two desktops
The birth of Cinnamon and Mate
Linux Mint 13 was the first Mint release that didn't have Gnome as a standard environment; it gave users the choice of versions based on Mate and Cinnamon.
Mate has rapidly become the users' favoured choice, and is perceived as being the true successor to Gnome 2; the fact that it is a direct fork of Gnome 2 helps, but in the eyes of users who consider Gnome 2 as the last great desktop environment, Mate offers a sensible return to function and order.
Introduced in Mint 12, Mate was fast and responsive, and combined with Mint's serene colour schemes, themes, fonts and window decorations, the user got a working desktop that didn't require the re-learning of how to search for simple applications. Mate may not be that popular at the moment, but given time we could see the pendulum swing in favour of functionality.
As Clem says: "Mate 'is' the new Gnome 2. Whichever way you look at it, Gnome 2 was 'renamed' and its new name is Mate. There is no other project as active as Mate, which continues where Gnome 2 left off. With version 1.4, Mate goes beyond Gnome 2; it fixes bugs which were in Gnome for years and adds new features."
The other Mint desktop, Cinnamon, is the replacement for Gnome 3, and the spiritual successor to MGSE (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions). With Gnome Shell going in a direction that offended the majority of the community, a compromise was needed. Consequently, the direction of Gnome was something that weighed heavily on the development of Mint, therefore the forking and creation of the Cinnamon project brought about a better-developed and more acceptable desktop environment.
"Cinnamon is primarily developed by and for Linux Mint," says Clem. "We make sure that it works with all distributions, but it is the implementation of our own vision of the desktop. In Cinnamon 1.6, this vision extends to file management and desktop handling with the addition of Nemo."
Cinnamon on toast
Cinnamon started with a fork of the Gnome 3.2.1 shell, and included the previously designed features from MGSE. It was designed to be innovative and fresh, and to appeal to most Linux users. Cinnamon held its arms open to those who weren't convinced with the new, and still believed that the traditional desktop had considerable life left in it.
As the Cinnamon slogan states: "Love your Linux, feel at home, get things done!". Clearly a slogan that reflects the radical changes that have taken place over the last few years, with many users stating that it feels more like using Gnome 2.x, but with a more modern approach. Users could now shut down and restart their computers without the headache-inducing shenanigans of Gnome 3; and they could benefit from the latest goodies that Gnome 3 included.
Cinnamon also included a return to customising the desktop, something which is possible with the likes of Gnome 3, but isn't quite as forthcoming as one would have liked. Being able to move the menu bar around the screen, fiddling with the desktop effects, adding themes, applets and extensions was a breeze; customisation was back on the menu, and the users savoured it.
As with Mate, though, there were niggles that cropped up from one user to another; but it's still very young, and rather than creating a Frankenstein environment, cobbled from the body parts of Gnome 3 or Unity, Cinnamon represented a brave new world.
"I don't think either desktop will rule supreme", says Clem. "Cinnamon certainly has a lot of fans, but so does Mate. We love both. Mate is the continuation of what Mint was built on. It's the desktop we used to enhance the user experience year after year, it's what mintMenu, mintDesktop were designed for. There's nothing more mature than Mate, and it's extremely important to us. Cinnamon, on the other hand, is our own implementation of the desktop, so any idea, any concept can be implemented there and on top of brand new and exciting technology."
Here comes Muffin
"We forked parts of Gnome 3 because we couldn't use them as they were (they didn't do what we wanted) and because the Gnome developers had no interest in implementing what we needed. As an example, the Linux Mint desktop has had a bottom panel since 2006. Gnome 3 has a top panel. Not only is the location of that panel non-configurable, it is on top 'by design'. Gnome 3 was 'adjusted' and 'hacked' with a collection of 'extensions' for a while, and when the time came to build something solid and functional, the Gnome 3 extensions weren't a valid solution. So the Shell was forked into Cinnamon, and then the window manager was forked into Muffin."
Mint hardware store
Meet the MintBox
As well as the abundant following that Linux Mint has accumulated over the last few years, we're beginning to see a rise in the number of PCs being sold with Mint as their primary operating system. For starters, if you go to the Linux Mint home page, then browse to the Project section, followed by Store, you will be greeted with Live DVDs and USB sticks, T-shirts, stickers, badges and, more importantly, computers, laptops and the MintBox.
Looking first at the Computers and Laptops section, we see a number of computers with Mint pre-installed from the ThinkPenguin catalogue, including an all-in-one setup, a standard desktop, a couple of mini-PCs and a home theatre setup. The Laptop area forwards us again to ThinkPenguin, with a number of laptops pre-installed with our favourite operating system.
Although these offerings are all fine and well, almost any reasonably priced PC can be manipulated into becoming a Linux Mint machine. The real star of the show, in this particular case, is the MintBox.
Working in partnership with CompuLab over the last year or so, the Mint team are now the proud parents of a very versatile, and reasonably powerful little unit that comes in two distinct flavours: a standard unit that comprises of 4GB RAM, an APU G-T405N 1GHz dual core CPU with a Radeon HD6290 and a flat, black metal case; and a Pro unit that houses 8GB RAM, an APU G-T56N 1.65GHz CPU with a Radeon HD 6320 and sports a fetching black metal ribbed case.
Both these units are fanless, with standard features shared between the two that include a 250GB HDD, dual-head HDMI 1.3/DisplayPort, gigabit Ethernet, S/PDIF 7.1 channel audio, 2X USB 3.0 ports and 2X USB 2.0 ports; 2X eSATA ports, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n (with dual antennae), a bay to house a 2.5-inch SATA HDD, 2 mini PCIe sockets with a single mSATA and a Serial RS232 port.
Amazingly, CompuLab has managed to squeeze all of this into a unit that's 6.3x6.3x1 inches for the standard, and 7.5x6.3x1.6 for the pro; with an emphasis on the units being easy to open up and upgrade.
The applications for such a tiny unit are wide and varied; everything from an industrial, or shop-based work unit, to educational and the home lounge-based media centre can be catered for, especially since these Mint-powered boxes are also VESA mountable and come with an incredibly low power consumption (9W for the standard and 18W for the pro).
Clem and the team are proud of the MintBox, and rightly so, although it does run to $476 plus VAT and shipping (roughly £297) for the standard, and $549 (£343) for the professional model. They aren't the cheapest units to grace the market, but they are terrifically well built, CompuLab being a world leader when it comes to designing and manufacturing industrial hardware.
Obviously, this endeavour has opened the gates to a more lucrative option for Linux Mint as a company; however, it's worth noting that Mint will receive a 10% cut from the sale of each device. And although the MintBox is far from being the first Linux distro, or even the first Ubuntu-based distro, to be sold pre-installed on a PC, it's certainly unique in its design, connectivity and appeal.
We have already seen many PCs sold with a Linux distro on board, specifically Dell's contribution with Ubuntu pre-installed. However, they aren't Linux Mint. Here, we have a unit that can be plugged in and played. As well we know, and have already mentioned, with Mint's inclusion of media specific codecs and libraries, you could quite easily order a brace of MintBoxes, hook them up to a reasonably-sized TV and start streaming media from around the network. In terms of ease of use, therefore, they require very little effort to set up.
New model ARMy
But what of the future of the MintBox, or the next generation of Mint-installed units? As Clem stated in his recent blog regarding the MintBox: "The partnership with CompuLab is likely to extend to the IntensePC in the future (which features the Intel i7)".
Certainly the added power behind Intel's flagship processors would be an incredible asset to the end user, particularly if the user's needs extend to video editing or the playing of games. But the future of the Linux-based PC seems to be heading down the path of the ARM CPU, at least for the moment. Could we possibly see a future where ARM and Mint, excuse the pun, go hand-in-hand?
It's certainly food for thought, and makes an interesting topic of conversation; after all, we've seen how popular the Raspberry Pi has been since its launch; could Mint partner with the Pi Foundation, perhaps?
Top of the pops?
Lies, damn lies and statistics
If you browse on over to the Wikimedia Traffic Analysis Report for Operating Systems, you will find an "overview of page requests by operating system, based on the user agent information that accompanies the server requests," as the site so eloquently explains. The numbers shown there are not to be considered as the final word in who is more popular than whom; but in the grand scale of things, we can see some indications of how popular Linux Mint is becoming.
The breakdown from a snapshot from 19 October to 31 October 2011 shows us that 17.3 million requests were sent from Linux Mint PCs, which comes to just 0.01% of the total, below Ubuntu, Mandriva, Debian, Fedora and OpenSUSE. In addition to these numbers, the results for this year are 11.2 million for Linux Mint, and 1,100 million for Ubuntu; with Debian, SUSE and Fedora now above Mint in the rank.
The Distrowatch story
For an enlightening contrast, visit Distrowatch.com. Scroll down the page and, as most of you will no doubt be aware, you will come across a Page Hit Ranking. At the very top of this list, leading by quite a margin, you will see Mint; but what does this mean?
The Distrowatch page rankings are, as Distrowatch itself states: "a light-hearted way of measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to usage nor to quality, and should not be used to measure the market share of distributions. They simply show the number of times a distribution page on DistroWatch.com was accessed each day, nothing more."
So, while Linux Mint is storming ahead of the competition, as it were (although as we know, there is no competition in Linux, right?), this is purely the number of times that the Mint link has been hit - be that by accident or just casual browsing.
Whatever metric you choose to measure the rise of Mint, it's clear that it's doing a grand job, and we can expect to see even more of it in the near future. Cheers Clem: keep up the good work.