Fedora and Ubuntu are making sweeping changes with their most recent releases, but Linux Mint is taking a more conservative approach. Though it's not quite finished yet, the release candidate of Linux Mint 11 (codenamed "Katya") offers the same GNOME 2 desktop that users have come to know and (in some cases) love.
Linux Mint should require no introduction. The distribution got its
start in 2006 as an Ubuntu derivative that offered different default
applications, a modified theme, and pre-installed multimedia codecs. The main edition of Linux Mint continues to be derived from Ubuntu's main release, though the project has branched out a bit over the years with more Ubuntu-derived releases with a focus on KDE, LXDE, and Xfce as well. More recently, the project also started offering a rolling release based on Debian Testing with Mint themes and management tools, and has rebased the Xfce Mint flavor with Debian as well.
The main Ubuntu-flavored release continues to be the most
popular. According to the most recent statistics released in April
2011 (scroll to the bottom of the page for the statistics), the Mint 10 release has more than 52% of users, the Mint 9 release (which is an LTS release) has about 22%, and the Debian-based LMDE has almost 9% of users. Older Mint releases account for the rest — the desktop used is not indicated in the statistics.
What's changed in 11
The release candidate was announced on on May 9, and includes a few significant changes since the last release to Mint-specific applications, and in the default application selection.
Mint has followed Ubuntu in replacing Rhythmbox with Banshee as the default music player, and in switching to LibreOffice as the default office suite. Instead of going with Shotwell to replace F-Spot in 11.04, the Katya release uses gThumb instead. The social media craze seems to have died out at Mint headquarters, as Gwibber is no longer installed by default, but the microblogging client is not replaced with any of the alternatives.
Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, the Desktop Settings tool in Mint is being made "desktop agnostic" in 11, and the release notes indicate that it will be extended to offer settings for KDE, LXDE, Fluxbox, and Xfce users in future editions of Mint. The Settings tool allows users to change a few things about the desktop's behavior that aren't exposed through the usual GNOME tools — for instance, turning on the infamous "wireframe dragging" that GNOME developers insisted on hiding in Gconf. A small, but welcome, change in this release is the ability to turn off the
fortune quotes users see at login in the console, or when opening a terminal, that are on by default. It's always been possible to kill these by editing
/etc/bash.bashrc, but that's not particularly obvious to many of Mint's user base.
The Software Manager that comes with Mint has also had a minor face lift and a few features have been added that provide more detail about what will be installed when users choose to install a package. The Mint Software Manager is fairly slick, and holds its own next to Ubuntu's — it might be a better choice for multi-distribution projects seeking a unified front-end for software installation, given that it's GPLv2 and Mint doesn't have an onerous contributor's agreement required to work on it.
One application that makes an appearance for the first time in 11 is Giver, a file-sharing application for that uses Avahi (a libre implementation of Zeroconf) to discover other Giver clients on the same network. Using Giver you can simply start the application and anyone on your local network also running Giver can share or receive files from your machine just by clicking the target user and selecting the files and folders to share. It's a lightweight file-sharing client that makes a lot of sense for users who are in a meeting or at an event, rather than using a more cumbersome centralized file-sharing service.
Overall, the Katya release is not that different from Linux Mint 10
— but quite different from its Ubuntu 11.04 upstream, at least where
the desktop is concerned. It has all the obligatory package updates
(Firefox, GIMP, etc.) but doesn't look or feel much different than Linux
Mint 10 at all.
Decision time for Mint
The main Mint release has long been based on Ubuntu with some fairly minimal changes — the addition of codecs that aren't shipped with Ubuntu, Mint-specific management tools and themes, and a slightly different selection of default applications. The Katya release is the first to feature what amounts to a completely different desktop environment than Ubuntu.
The GNOME packages used for the default desktop in Mint 11 are still part of Ubuntu 11.04. However, with 11.10 Ubuntu will be removing the "classic" GNOME desktop fallback. This leaves the Mint team with a handful of options — maintain GNOME 2.32 for another release, embrace Unity or GNOME Shell, or switch to another desktop like Xfce. Mint has an Xfce-based release as well, but it is a rolling release based on Debian, not on Ubuntu.
So what is Mint going to do? I asked Linux Mint founder Clement Lefebvre
by email, and he says that it's up in the air:
I was asked that question about Linux Mint 11 and at the time it seemed we
were going to use Gnome 3 without Gnome Shell. It's likely we'll migrate to
Gnome 3 and GTK3 in the future but if taking ownership on what is currently
Gnome 2 makes more sense to us, we could do this as well.
For 11, Lefebvre says sticking with GNOME 2 was the right choice. He said that the main challenge was "the gnome settings daemon not working as well as before and a multitude of regressions occurring in Compiz." Though GNOME 2 won't be supported in the future, he says it's still a modern desktop and (as many users have pointed out compared to GNOME 3) "extremely mature."
For Mint, maturity counts more than whiz-bang new features. According to Lefebvre, the main goal is to "provide the desktop people have come to enjoy with Linux Mint," and that could mean moving to GNOME 3, sticking with GNOME 2, or having a fork of either of those desktops. "We know precisely what we want, we're keeping a close eye on the new desktop alternatives (Gnome 3, Unity) and as usual we'll choose what works best for us."
Linux Mint has a very small group of contributors. Lefebvre is the only person working on Mint full time, though he says the project was close to getting a second contributor who had to bow out "due to personal circumstances." Lefebvre does say that there is a lot he'd like to do.
There's a lot of R&D and development planned for the future, we want to test our own base, we're looking at snapshot/restoration scenarios and local network communications in particular, and we've got some really ambitious projects in mind, but we won't be able to tackle these with limited resources. There's a strong community behind us, the support we're getting is amazing and we've got the power to push further. I personally look forward to extending the team and getting more developers working full time for Linux Mint in the near future.
Extending the team might be difficult without a few changes. The planning and release process for Linux Mint is a bit opaque. Mint does not have a mailing list for developer discussions, so any and all of the development discussions (such as they are) take place on the Linux Mint forum. And very little is discussed on the forum. Those who would care to contribute to Linux Mint are directed to the Get Involved page, which emphasizes monetary donations, spreading the word about Mint, bug reporting, and providing forum support to other Mint users. Interested contributors can follow along on GitHub, but recruiting significant contributors of code does not seem to be a priority for the project.
Lefebvre acknowledges that "it can be confusing for people when it
comes to getting involved." He points to the forums and other
community features on the site for contributing ideas, but says
"things happen when people come and talk to us. Whether it's on IRC,
or directly by email, the best way to get something done is by direct
communication." He continues:
If the idea is good we can discuss it and implement it. If it's bad, we can acknowledge it and move on to something else. Either way things progress fast once we start talking about it, and it's also in these circumstances that we get people involved and welcome them in the team. If somebody comes to us not only with an idea but also with the skills to implement it, in most cases we'll talk to that person and try to make him/her implement his/her own idea for inclusion in the upcoming release. This collaboration with the person who took the initiative and the work we do together is often the start of a great relationship and often leads to having this person join the development team.
Compared to projects like Ubuntu and Fedora, this requires a lot more legwork for users to make the leap to contributors. Still, Mint might just find a few contributors ready to jump in with the 11 release. While some users have been happy with Unity and GNOME Shell so far, quite a few would prefer to stick with the tried-and-true GNOME experience. Mint 11 might be a good refuge for those users, and this would be a good opportunity for the Mint project to pick up more hands that can help.
Compared to Ubuntu 11.04 or the Fedora 15 release scheduled for this week, Mint is a fairly modest upgrade. For many Linux users, that's all that's really wanted.
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