Innovation and Community

Distro Walk – Linux Mint

© Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

© Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Article from Issue 261/2022

Clement Lefebvre gives a brief history of Linux Mint and thanks the community that has grown up around the distribution.

Linux Mint is one of the top three Debian derivatives. Although it began as an Ubuntu derivative in 2006, Linux Mint first became prominent in 2011 when it forked Gnome 2 under the name of MATE for users who shied away from Gnome 3. Today, Linux Mint is also known for the development of its own desktop, Cinnamon, and for its rolling release Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE), as well as for the friendly interaction between its developers and its community. Throughout its 18 years of existence, Linux Mint has been guided by team leader Clement Lefebvre, who has taken the time to reflect on the project's history with Linux Magazine.

Linux Magazine: How did Linux Mint get started?

Clement Lefebvre: Linux was always a hobby. Over the years, it became much more than that, but from the very start it [was] always something I played with for fun. I wrote software; I tinkered with distributions; I spent a lot of time just chatting with other users. Eventually, I started writing articles and reviews about Linux, and, when the time came to host them myself, I called my website Linux Mint.

At the time, Ubuntu was only two years old, but in my opinion it was the best distribution out there. I reviewed many releases, and I had a pretty good idea of what was missing and what could be improved. One day I started modifying Ubuntu, and I wrote about that. People were really excited about this experiment, so I continued and I used their feedback. More and more people joined, releases got more and more serious, and, after Linux Mint 2.2 Bianca was out, this was no longer just a fun experiment; the goal had become to produce the best desktop distribution.

LM: What are you proudest of with Linux Mint?

CL: I think the one thing I'm the most proud of is the consistency we've shown in the last 16 years. We used user feedback, we made people happy, we grew, we never reinvented ourselves into something different, and we added, improved, and added and improved again and again, incrementally with each new release. Our number one goal is to always produce a better release. And I think we've managed to do that very well.

LM: What are the challenges of maintaining three separate desktops for each release?

CL: We support three of them (Cinnamon, MATE, and Xfce), but they're all built on GTK. They use the same toolkit and some of the same tools. We invest massively in developing, maintaining, and supporting core applications and tools which [work on] all three desktops. It makes a lot of sense for us to work on solutions which benefit all Mint editions.

The XApps project is a good example of that. Rather than working on three different text editors, three different PDF readers, etc., we make sure we have one core suite of applications which work well everywhere.

LM: How has MATE departed from Gnome 2 over the years?

CL: MATE had to evolve and embrace new technologies over the years, but it always remained true to its identity. MATE basically is Gnome 2. It started as a complete fork of it, and, while Gnome 3 turned into something completely different, MATE brought back Gnome 2 exactly as it was. Years later, it's HiDPI compatible, it's GTK3, and it sports new features, but it's still Gnome 2.

LM: Cinnamon is always adding enhancements. How do you decide upon these enhancements? Is there a general direction?

CL: That's a very interesting question, because there's always been a vision of what the desktop should be, but it's only with Cinnamon that Linux Mint started to have the empowerment to really develop its own desktop environment.

Before Gnome 3, MATE, and Cinnamon, for many years, the original Linux Mint desktop was built on Gnome (Gnome 2). It featured a bottom panel, an advanced menu (mintMenu), and already looked very much like the modern Mint desktop. When we moved from Gnome 2 to MATE and Cinnamon, we recreated this desktop twice. MATE and Cinnamon used different technologies; they gave us different challenges, but we still only had one vision to implement. [But] throughout the years we were able to do more with Cinnamon than with MATE. First, because it's easier to develop for Cinnamon: It's more modern, the top layer is in JavaScript, [and] we wrote a whole set of libraries and interfaces, which make developing for it a breeze. Second, because although we support all distributions, Cinnamon is built primarily by and for Linux Mint. It's the implementation of our own vision, following our own schedule and our own constraints. Its primary role is to make what Linux Mint needs for a desktop. Third, because MATE's primary mission is to not deviate, as much as possible, [from] what Gnome 2 was: It can innovate a little bit, it can improve, but it has to keep being Gnome 2.

LM: Why does Linux Mint offer a Debian edition when the main release is based on Ubuntu, which is a Debian-derivative?

CL: To produce Linux Mint, we use upstream components. Each component is carefully selected, and it's important we know why we pick this one rather than another, what are the pros and cons associated with it, [and] how easy is it to replace it or rewrite it from scratch. Some components require [only] a little bit of work to integrate. Blueman for instance is set to replace Blueberry in Linux Mint 21, so we're working on that. Other components require a lot more effort. Ubuntu to us is a component, one which changes significantly every two years. It's our package base. It's the best we know, and it's the one we want to use, but we want to make sure we can continue to produce Linux Mint if it ever stops being available.

LMDE is primarily for us. It's something we maintain as an exercise to make sure we're able to make Linux Mint without that very important component that is Ubuntu. Its goal is to be the same as Linux Mint but without using Ubuntu. [But] it doesn't need to be exactly the same. We can afford to leave a few things aside, as long as we know they're small and it's not far behind.

LM: Describe Linux Mint's web of release dependencies, starting with Ubuntu and Debian.

CL: For each Ubuntu LTS release, we usually release four Linux Mint point releases. That means a release every six months. We release when ready. It doesn't really matter when, as long as we're happy with the release. Our priority is Linux Mint. It's our distribution really. LMDE is important too, but as I said, it's primarily for us. If one day Ubuntu disappears, we'll be happy to have it. In the meantime, it also ensures everything we do is compatible with Debian, outside of Ubuntu, and that matters too.

LM: If someone asked you why they should use Linux Mint, how would you respond?

CL: We innovate, but I don't think that's the main reason I'd recommend Linux Mint. We're a great team. We know who we are, and we know what our users like. I think that's what matters most. If you ask Mint users why they want Linux Mint 21, I'm not sure they'll all talk about the new features. Maybe it's the other way around; maybe they're happy to know for a fact that despite all the novelties they'll find the same desktop there they already like.

LM: How are decisions made for Linux Mint? How do team members interact with the community?

CL: When a tough decision needs to be taken, it's usually my job. This is quite rare though. We reach consensus or often agree from the start within the team. We share the same core principles: for instance, that the computer belongs to the user. Things have to remain simple. We don't distract or frustrate the user. All of us are also users, so we don't just wonder how people would like this or that; we start asking ourselves whether we'd like it ourselves. We're building the OS we want, for us but with everybody in mind.

The community grew into something big, and it's hard to focus on the development while being active within the community. I keep an eye on the blog, some of the developers, interact with users in GitHub, and we've a great moderation team which doesn't just moderate the forums and IRC, but also represents the users within the team, lets us know when something notable happens, and catches our attention on particular points when needed.

LM: Is there anything else you would care to say?

CL: I want to thank everybody who is or has ever been involved in helping Linux Mint, whether it's with an idea, or by helping another user, or with a donation, or by showing us a bug. When I say everybody, I really mean everybody. There are so many people out there and so few of us. Sometimes we don't respond. Sometimes it takes months to do so. Sometimes we just don't know how to say no or no thanks. That's actually one of the toughest things to do still. Yet we wouldn't be there if it wasn't for you. We're not just a great distribution, we're a great community. We're really proud of all of you [and] very grateful for all the contributions we receive.

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