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Two flavors of GNOME for Linux Mint 12

November 9, 2011

This article was contributed by Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier.

Earlier this year, Linux Mint seemed to have two choices: Stay close to Ubuntu and take on the Unity desktop, or move to GNOME 3.0. Rather than choose between two immature desktops, Mint chose to stand pat on GNOME 2.32. This time around, Mint is taking a different approach, taming GNOME 3.2 for Mint users and planning to offer a legacy version of GNOME as well.

Mint project lead Clement Lefebvre has been fairly quiet about desktop plans for releases after Mint 11. On Friday November 4th, Lefebvre finally took the wraps off the plans for Linux Mint 12. Despite the Ubuntu-based heritage of Mint, it looks like the team is sticking with GNOME over Unity.


Lefebvre said that Mint would like to keep GNOME 2.32 "a little longer," but "we need to look forward and embrace new technologies." He said that GNOME 3.x is "a fantastic desktop" that's getting better with each release. Eventually, Lefebvre said, "we'll be able to do much more with it than was possible with the traditional desktop." Eventually, but not today.

In the meantime, Lefebvre's plan is to ship GNOME 3.2 and MATE, which is a continuation of GNOME 2.32 that is currently packaged for Arch Linux. One problem, though, is that MATE has naming conflicts with GNOME 3.x, which Lefebvre said the Mint team is "working hard in collaboration with the MATE developers to identify and fix these conflicts so that we can have both Gnome 3 and MATE installed by default on the DVD edition of Linux Mint 12." Unfortunately, there's precious little information online about MATE, but you can find Debian-ized packages for MATE on GitHub. In the comments to the post about Mint 12, Lefebvre also directs interested parties to the #MATE channel on Freenode.

So, if all goes well, users will have a familiar GNOME 2.32-ish desktop to use. More adventurous users, though, can opt for Mint's take on GNOME 3.2. This GNOME is not what you'd see with Fedora 16 or openSUSE 12.1, though. Lefebvre said that they've put together a "desktop layer" that hammers GNOME 3.2 into a traditional desktop if users want that:

We've been using application menus, window lists and other traditional desktop features for as far as I can remember. It looked different in KDE, Xfce, or even Windows and Mac OS, but it was similar. Gnome 3 is changing all that and is developing a better way for us to interact with our computer. From our point of view here at Linux Mint, we're not sure they're right, and we're not sure they're wrong either. What we're sure of, is that if people aren't given the choice they will be frustrated and our vision of an Operating System is that your computer should work for you and make you feel comfortable. So with this in mind, Gnome 3 in Linux Mint 12 needs to let you interact with your computer in two different ways: the traditional way, and the new way, and it's up to you to decide which way you want to use.

For this, we developed "MGSE" (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions), which is a desktop layer on top of Gnome 3 that makes it possible for you to use Gnome 3 in a traditional way. You can disable all components within MGSE to get a pure Gnome 3 experience, or you can enable all of them to get a Gnome 3 desktop that is similar to what you've been using before. Of course you can also pick and only enable the components you like to design your own desktop.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot that Mint can do about GNOME 3's other major drawback — 3D acceleration required. Lefebvre said that Mint 12 will allow running GNOME 3.2 in Virtualbox if you have video acceleration enabled, but otherwise, you're stuck with the fallback mode. Users can also choose the MATE desktop.

So, in the end, users should have three options with Mint's main release: GNOME 3.2, GNOME 3.2 with Mint's extensions, or MATE as a GNOME 2.x replacement.

Ubuntu users' pain is Mint's gain

According to Lefebvre, Mint saw a "40% increase in a single month" and he claims that Mint is quickly catching up with Ubuntu for the top spot in the Linux desktop market and fourth overall for desktop operating systems.

There's little doubt that Mint saw a big jump in users following the Fedora 16 and Ubuntu 11.04 releases. Linux users around the world made their unhappiness with GNOME 3.0 and Unity widely known. If you consider DistroWatch's rankings to be accurate, consider that Linux Mint is currently in the top spot (for the six-month ranking). Ubuntu hasn't been displaced from that spot for years. Unfortunately, like Ubuntu, Mint doesn't actually publish hard numbers. Occasionally Canonical cites a hard number (most recently 20 million), but doesn't provide anything the public can verify. (Unlike Fedora and openSUSE, which provide statistics based on the number of unique IPs that connect to their update servers.) So Mint appears to be doing well lately, but how well we don't really know.

With so many users, though, Mint may want to do a bit more to publicize its security fixes and explain its security policy. Trying to find a coherent policy about security updates on the Linux Mint website is an exercise in futility. In addition, Mint doesn't have mailing lists, so no security list exists. Since many of Mint's packages are taken directly from Ubuntu, and use Ubuntu's repositories, users will get security updates when Ubuntu's users do for those packages. But for Mint-specific packages, it's unclear what the policies are.

Search revenue

Another interesting development with this release is Lefebvre's announcement that Mint will be trying to go beyond user donations and extract revenue out of searches.

Mint has always shipped an add-on that "enhances" search results given by Google in Firefox. With any luck that's going away, since the default pages produced by Mint were, shall we say, less than optimal. However, Mint may be limiting user choice when it comes to search engines out of the box. Lefebvre said:

Our goal is to give users a good search experience while funding ourselves by receiving a share of [search] income. Search engines who do not share the income generated by our users, are removed from Linux Mint and might get their ads blocked.

Exactly how Mint will be blocking ads is not explained — and Lefebvre hasn't yet responded to our questions about the plans to block ads in Mint 12 — or whether this might influence the browsers shipped with Mint 12. A preview to Mint's partnerships with browser vendors might be found in the updated Opera 11.52 package for Linux Mint, which seems to be aimed at demonstrating the size of Mint's user base.

It's not entirely surprising that Mint is looking to go beyond what users contribute directly. Lefebvre writes that "we're in a difficult situation financially" because the project is only generating income via donors. Despite having "millions" of users, the September stats show the project raising about $5,600 from 316 donors.


If the timeline put forward by Lefebvre holds, then Mint should ship its first RC for Mint 12 by November 11th and a final release around November 20th. Lefebvre said that the GNOME 3.x stuff is "fully ready and fully functional" with just a few minor bugs. The MATE packages may need more work, though, and negotiations with browser vendors may mean some search engines are not included in the RC.

As a project that was caught between the GNOME Shell and Unity conflicts, Mint seems to have not only weathered the desktop turbulence but emerged better for it. By catering to what the existing audience wants, Mint has grown its user base considerably. Whether the project can now turn that into a reliable source of revenue and continue that growth is another question entirely.

Comments (7 posted)

Brief items

Distribution quotes of the week

The magic happening in Android, and I hate to admit but iOS too, is they've gone back to the bazaar model where anyone can share any app they like. Sure, most of it is crap. In fact they probably have an app for crap. Part of it is driven by developer greed, which is counter to what Debian stands for, but most of it is just hackers enjoying their new found freedom to share. Sure, the base is solid, and carefully crafted and built at Google. You can't just write any old crud and expect it to ship installed on every phone by default. You need the default code base to "just work". However, anyone is enabled to share whatever crap they like as an app in the market. That freedom to share is missing in Debian.
-- Bill Cox (Thanks to Paul Wise.)

Significant accommodations were made by Banshee upstream in order to make life easier for Canonical to integrate Banshee into their OS. For one thing, that's why the Ubuntu One Music Store support is a core Banshee feature, not part of the third-party community extensions package. If Banshee was being considered for replacement due to unresolved technical issues, then perhaps it would have been polite to, I don't know, inform upstream that it was on the cards? Or, if Canonical felt that problems specific to their own itches required scratching, then is it completely beyond the realm of possibility to imagine they might have spent developer resources on bug fixing their OS and sending those fixes upstream? Or even - and call me crazy - providing access for upstream to specialized hardware such as a $174 Pandaboard to empower upstream to isolate and fix unreproducible bugs specific to Canonical's target hardware?
-- Jo Shields is unhappy about Banshee possibly being removed as an Ubuntu 12.04 default application

As such, while Ubuntu has always shipped a huge archive of available software, today the visibility on that software and the gems inside is better than ever. I think it would be a disservice for us to obsess too much on what is included on the default installation when there is a wealth of content available in the Ubuntu Software Center. Default apps are important (particularly for those in non-networked environments), but let's not forget about the wider commons that in only a click away and all the value it offers.
-- Jono Bacon

Doing btrfs development makes sense, but inflicting it by default on users who really have no need for it isn't quite the same discussion. For performance it's not showing any signs of being better than ext3/4 - in fact on some media its massively underperforming them currently. The funky feature set really isn't relevant to most users while their data still being available most definitely *is*.
-- Alan Cox

I admire and respect the fact that you can make free software do exactly what you want - that's precisely what I set out to support in founding Ubuntu. What I did not set out to found was a project which pandered to the needs of a few, at the cost to the many. Especially when the few can perfectly well help themselves, and the many cannot.
-- Mark Shuttleworth

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