Is Linux Mint an Ubuntu-Killer?

Thursday Dec 1st 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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User traffic and key design changes suggest that Mint is a serious challenger to the King of Linux.

Suddenly, everyone's talking about Linux Mint. A six-year-old distribution based on Ubuntu and Debian, Linux Mint has always enjoyed considerable popularity, but, in the last month, it has started receiving dramatically more attention.

This attention has two main reasons. First, pundits have been debating the meaning (if any) of the fact that Linux Mint has received over two and a half times more page views than Ubuntu on Distrowatch for the past month.

Second, Linux Mint's new 12.0 release, codenamed "Lisa," features the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE), a set of modifications that offer alternatives to the most obvious cosmetic and conceptual changes in the GNOME 3 release series. MGSE offers a desktop much like the GNOME 2 series while preserving the most useful of GNOME 3's innovations.

This development is so bizarre that it could only make sense in the free and open source software community. Still, the combination of possible new popularity and MGSE is enough to start the community speculating whether Ubuntu users, discontent with the new Unity shell, are looking to Linux Mint as a replacement.

At first glance, the idea is absurd. Given that MGSE modifies the GNOME 3.2 release, you might convincingly speculate that Linux Mint has provided the solution for the many who are unhappy with GNOME's current directions.

But challenge Ubuntu? Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, claims twenty million users, and is promoting the distribution heavily.

By contrast, Linux Mint is a much smaller, non-commercial organization that appears to be less organized, and to have fewer resources to draw upon. In fact, it relies on donations and ingenuity for funding.

Yet is the idea even technically possible? Certainly Linux Mint's team and its supporters think so, considering that for several years they have been calling Linux Mint the fourth most widely used operating system, which sounds like a deliberate challenge to Ubuntu's claim to be the third. One way or the other, a closer look seems in order.

From the Same Roots

Although Linux Mint offers a Debian-based edition, the majority of its releases are based on Ubuntu. Nor, so far, is the new release an exception. On the one hand, Linux Mint and Ubuntu share the same installer and boot in more or less the same time on the same machine.

They share, too, the same array of GNOME-based software, down to Ubuntu 11.10's replacement of Evolution with Mozilla Thunderbird for email. Both offer fallback environments for systems without 3-D hardware acceleration, and proprietary drivers for video and wLinux Mint and MGSE vs. Ubuntu and Unityireless cards.

Linux Mint 12 even introduces a new music player indicator reminiscent of Unity's. Neither includes provision for applets on the panel or application launchers on the desktop, the way that their mutual ancestor GNOME 2 did, although both do support folder and document desktop launchers.

On the other hand, most of the differences are minimal. The package managers differ only in their branding, with Linux Mint's being less blaring and obtrusive, as usually happens with a community-based distribution.

Admittedly, Linux Mint's system requirements list 500 megabytes of RAM compared to Ubuntu's 384. I suspect, though, that Linux Mint is simply being more realistic about how much memory is needed to do normal productivity without being completely frustrated.

MGSE vs. Unity

So far as applications are concerned, the greatest difference is that Linux Mint defaults to the little-known DuckDuckGo search engine, whose advertising revenue Linux Mint shares. This is the closest that Linux Mint comes to matching Unity's extensive branding, but the exception is worthwhile. DuckDuckGo offers more options, greater privacy, and noticeably different search results than Google's, and needs only image searching to be a complete replacement.

However, the greatest differences between Ubuntu and Linux Mint are in the user experience. After all, Unity is a simplification of the desktop inspired by the interfaces of mobile devices, while Linux Mint is a fusion of GNOME 2 and 3.

This fusion is accomplished by adding MGSE options to the Shell Extensions tab for GNOME Tweak, which an increasing number of users consider an essential addition to GNOME 3.

MGSE includes extensions to restore many of the features of GNOME 2 while converting GNOME 3 innovations such as the overview mode to options rather than unavoidable necessities. When toggled on, each extension takes effect immediately, allowing you to evaluate them without delay.

For many, the most important of MGSE's innovations will probably be the bottom panel, its menu and its notification tray. Together, these extensions are enough to allow users to work on a single screen, instead of constantly switching to the overview mode to open applications or switch virtual workspaces, as GNOME 3 requires. These innovations do not fully restore GNOME 2 functionality, since the panel is not customizable, but they might minimally satisfy those discontented with Unity or GNOME 3.

The menu included with Linux Mint 12 is reminiscent of openSUSE's Slab or KDE's Lancelot. It is less obtrusive than both GNOME 2's classical menu and the screen overlay that replaces the menu in Unity.

The notification tray is a similar combination of the traditional and the innovative, invisible until toggled by the icon on the far right of the bottom panel, and as long as the bottom panel itself. This arrangement eliminates the usual problem of some of the tray being invisible, making it an improvement over both GNOME and Unity.

Yet what is just as important as the extensions themselves is the fact they partially restore the most important feature that Unity often removes or limits: the freedom to work the way you want. In Linux Mint, you can, for instance, work with the bottom panel menu, or go to the GNOME 3 overview to open applications.

Similarly, you can work with three virtual workspaces that are part of the panel, enabling the GNOME 3 overview mode to allow the shell to manage virtual workspaces, or use both at once.

Although this range of choice needs to be extended before it can match the flexibility of GNOME 2, it is far more than anything provided by Unity, which generally imposes a single way to work on all users, regardless of their preferences.

Going Down the Road

For those who already use Linux, the trend of Linux Mint is promising. MGSE in particular suggests that Linux Mint is in tune with the existing user base, a group that seems to value the ability to work in their preferred style more than any other factor.

At the same time, I suspect that many existing users may feel that Linux Mint does not go far enough in its tendencies. While many will find it an improvement over Ubuntu with Unity, the improvement may not be great enough to be worth the effort of switching distributions.

I wonder, too, whether the same qualities that might endear Linux Mint to existing users -- or, at least, make it the lesser of several evils -- will appeal equally to the new users that Unity seems calculated to attract. So far as the Distrowatch figures have meaning, they may reflect only the curiosity of existing users.

For now, the most that can be said is that Linux Mint seems to be heading for a destination of which many existing users approve. Unfortunately, in the current release, it has moved part ways down the road but still has a ways to travel.

To me, the important question is whether it can arrive before community interest shifts. Also (the question nobody is asking in the focus on Ubuntu) will GNOME or other distributions seize on MGSE as a graceful way of recovering from the embarrassing reception of GNOME 3?

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