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Q&A: Clement Lefebvre: The man behind Linux Mint

Linux Mint, an Ubuntu and Debian-based Linux distribution, has seen tremendous growth in community support and installed base in recent years. Since arriving on the scene in 2006 with its first release called "Ada," Mint has become the most popular FOSS operating system on DistroWatch.com, surpassing both Ubuntu and Debian themselves.

[TEST:Linux Mint 15 delivers smooth alternative to Ubuntu]

Mint is available with out-of-the-box multimedia support and now even has its own desktop interface, Cinnamon. Freelance writer Christopher von Eitzen interviewed Project Founder and Lead Developer Clement Lefebvre about Mint's origins, major changes to the distribution, its growth and its future.

What is your professional background and what was the first Linux distribution that you ever used?

I got a Masters in Computer Sciences from the University of South Paris in 2001. I was mostly interested in game development, but as it happened, I worked for banks, telecom and software companies in France and in Ireland. I had various job titles (web developer, IT engineer, software developer, J2EE architect), and in one company I was teaching rather than coding, but most of time my job was to design and to develop software or web applications.

My first distribution was Slackware. In 1997, if I remember well, a student at my university brought a shiny set of Wallnut Creek floppies. Everybody got excited at the idea of having a Unix system at home (we were developing on IBM AIX at the university). I got immediately hooked. Slackware was (and still is) a piece of art, clean, predictable... and it was also my first encounter with Free Software.

Very few people ran Linux back then. You had to own a "Sound Blaster" card for audio to work and it'd take a novice a week or two to get the mouse to work and achieve a good resolution with X11. And of course, there were very few applications available. Most users were university students, teachers, or developers with a serious taste for adventure and a strong immunity to discomfort. This, and the novelty of the Free Software ideas were very enlightening to me and I really enjoyed being part of this in the late 90s.

You launched the first release of Linux Mint, code-named "Ada", in 2006. What made you want to fork Ubuntu and create a new distribution? Why Ubuntu and why the name "Linux Mint"?

I was writing for http://linuxforums.org and I wanted to try and host some of my articles myself so I needed a domain name and I chose "linuxmint.com" (mostly because it was short, obviously related to Linux, and connoted the notion of freshness and technology which just works). That's how the name came initially, as a domain name for a Linux website.

Parallel to that, I had been reviewing distributions for a while and tinkering with a lot of things so I had good knowledge of how they worked and what I liked or didn't really like in each one of them. At some stage I got something out and I wrote a bit about it on linuxmint.com. I was surprised by the feedback I got and a few months later it was clear people were more interested in that little project than in my articles.

There was no plan to create a new distribution initially, and certainly not one that could rival the likes of Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS or even the established Linux distributions. People showed interest in what I was doing and so I responded to that.

Ubuntu was never "forked". It was and still is used as a package base and regarded as an upstream component. Why Ubuntu? Because it was (and still is) the best package base.

What were the original goals that you set for the initial version of Linux Mint and did you achieve them all? And what would you have changed about it if you were given the chance to do so?

The first version had no goals at all. It was something I experimented with. After that, feedback shaped versions 2.0, 2.1 and 2.2. It's only after Linux Mint 2.2 "Bianca" that things got serious. 

The biggest goal for me is to make sure each release is the best release to date. It might sound funny but it's not always easy to achieve. Things move fast upstream, technologies change. My main concern is to continue to provide to people what they like and to get closer to a better desktop, to make it easier and more pleasant to use, each time.

What makes Linux Mint different compared to Ubuntu or Debian beyond the visual changes?

I'm not really sure. It never "had" to be different. We're already radically different in the way we work, in what we think is or isn't important, in the vision of the desktop we have, in how we look at security and package updates... so with all that we've often evolved in opposite directions. Now, from a technical point of view, if you look at Linux Mint, it is either using an Ubuntu or a Debian package base, so beyond the desktop layer (where we're primarily focused) you'll find very few differences.

To a certain extent, and despite a fork of their package base, it's also the case between Ubuntu and Debian. We're talking about the same base but the two distributions are very different, primarily because they're focused on very different things. Ubuntu patches the desktop and user applications layers heavily and at times they introduce significant differences in the core of the OS (locales, Upstart for instance...).

Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint evolve according to their own vision and consider upstream components as ways to achieve that vision, which means things don't have to be different but changes can be introduced when needed. In the case of Linux Mint, we try not to introduce incompatibilities with upstream package bases, so we keep the same libraries, same versions and we do not fork the base.

In recent years, Linux Mint -- currently ranked higher on Distrowatch.com than the distribution it is based on -- has steadily increased in popularity among both beginners and expert Linux users. How has this constant influx of new users changed the direction of the project, if at all, and what problems have you encountered because of its quick user-base growth?

The biggest issue is to scale. Some aspects such as hosting are easy to solve (you just throw more money and resources at it), others such as the quality of the communication between the team and the community are much more problematic. Thankfully Linux Mint has always been growing, so this isn't new. We might be X times the project we were back in 2006, but we've always had to scale so we learnt a lot and we continue to learn from it as we grow larger.

This year we introduced a new blog and we recently restructured the way we host packages and deliver Debian update packs.

What was it like transitioning from GNOME, used in Linux Mint 2.0 to version 12, to the Cinnamon and MATE desktops with the release of Linux Mint 13?

It was a nightmare but it's also something we're very proud of.

Some people don't understand how important GNOME was for us. It was by far the most popular and the most mature desktop environment. It was a huge component for us. Most of the technology we had developed was built around GNOME and as a desktop distribution we had improved incrementally around it since 2006. So there was simply no way we were going to stop using it.

We have a vision and no matter what happens we get things done. This was the biggest challenge we faced since 2006. Linux Mint 12 was hugely impacted and it shipped with an early version of MATE and a set of GNOME Shell extensions which roughly did the job but weren't any long term solution. This was really tough for me personally. You can imagine what happened during that development cycle... all efforts, all resources, everything we had went into getting back on our feet. When Linux Mint 13 "Maya" was out, I had a huge smile on my face, MATE was stable and Cinnamon was there. I'll probably always have fond memories of Linux Mint 13 as it marks the end of the drama and the recovery from the loss of GNOME for us. "Maya" is also my daughter's name, so that adds to it even more. :)

With the latest stable release -- Linux Mint 15 "Olivia" -- out the door at the end of May, what changes and features are you most excited about?

Linux Mint 15 brought a lot of features people were asking for; a more interactive login screen (MDM HTML5 engine), unified settings in Cinnamon, an independent Driver Manager, proper repository and PPA management...etc. For the first time also, Cinnamon handles the entire visual layer of the desktop on its own including the control center and the screensaver, no part of GNOME 3 is visible.

What would you like to see make it into version 16 "Petra", which will be based on Ubuntu 13.10 to be released in October?

The Software Manager will feature performance and speed improvements. We'll introduce a USB stick formatting tool. Cinnamon won't be a frontend to GNOME anymore but a complete desktop environment with its own backend. Cinnamon 2.0 will also introduce improved window tiling, a new feature called window snapping, and better user and session management. These are the features which are ready for Linux Mint 16 at the moment. There's also a roadmap and a lot of further improvements planned for the release but I'd rather not talk about these until I'm sure they'll be implemented.

While Ubuntu offers an automated in-place upgrade option to install the latest major releases of the distribution, Linux Mint does not officially support this functionality. Instead users are advised to backup their data, perform a fresh install of the current stable version and then restore their data. Why has the team decided to forgo this option and are there any plans to include official support for in-place upgrades in the future?

Well, it's possible to upgrade Mint the same way you upgrade any Debian-based distribution, including Ubuntu, and I'm sure it works pretty well. That's not to say it's a good idea to do so. First, few people are experienced enough to troubleshoot problems related to APT. Second, it takes more time and bandwidth to perform an APT upgrade than to download and install a new release (which 900MB ISO can contain between 3 and 5GB of compressed data). Third, when you install from a live system you get a unique opportunity to see the new release, to test the new kernel with your hardware and to make sure things work fine before you make the jump. Now with this said, things can certainly be improved. We should probably insist on people creating a /home partition during the installation, we should probably implement safeguards on UID and permission checks after a fresh upgrade... there's definitely work to be done for upgrading to be made easier. Ubuntu's recommended solution isn't something we want to back though, it's not good enough for us to recommend. Automation is one thing and making a process trivial is usually an improvement, but when that process is risky, automation is really dangerous.

With Canonical pushing for its Mir display server technology and XMir, the X server for Mir, for Ubuntu 13.10 and beyond, what does the Linux Mint project plan to do? Will it follow Ubuntu's example or switch to Wayland? 

Whether it's in the scope of Linux Mint or Cinnamon, we're only interested in stable and proven technology. If tomorrow Mir or Wayland arrive in our repositories and we can use them to give people a better experience without causing significant regressions, we'll consider using them. Ubuntu 13.10 is pushing for Mir so we'll probably test it and see if it fits, how mature it is and what are the pros and cons involved in making use of it.

In September 2010, the project released the first Debian-based edition of Linux Mint (LMDE), replacing the distribution's standard Ubuntu base with Debian's testing branch. Why create a Debian edition? How popular has it been and what percentage of Linux Mint users are running it? What are the project's future plans for LMDE?

We wanted to know more about our package base, as a component. So the best way to know more about it was to switch it to another one and compare the differences. What would we lose if we stopped using Ubuntu? What did it bring to us compared to vanilla Debian? It was important for us, as a project which innovates and develops a lot on the desktop layer, to see how portable our technology was. Could we port it to other bases? Would it work out of the box elsewhere? Or was it too tightly tied to Ubuntu?

We wanted to know more about the pros and cons of frozen release cycles vs. rolling models. We learnt a lot from it, so from an R&D perspective it was a huge success. As a Linux Mint edition, it's also relatively popular. If we gather all LMDE users, it comes in third behind the Cinnamon and MATE editions. Our plan is to innovate on the frozen cycle and to develop continuously for Linux Mint n+1. LMDE follows a semi-rolling path with update packs and benefits from all the development done on the latest Linux Mint releases. The goal for LMDE is to continue to be as similar to the mainstream editions as possible and to feature the same improvements release after release with Debian and without Ubuntu.

Do you ever foresee dropping Ubuntu completely in favor of Debian or another distribution for the basis of Linux Mint?

No. We're prepared for it because it's important for us not to depend on our components but there are no plans to replace Ubuntu. LMDE was partly started to prepare for this eventuality. We're also putting a few resources into other R&D projects, one of which is to create our own package base. This of course is pure R&D, there are no tangible plans here, we just want to know what our options are and to be ready whatever happens.

Tell us a bit about the sub-projects that currently fall under the Linux Mint umbrella, such as the Cinnamon desktop environment and Nemo, a fork of version 3.4 of the Nautilus file manager.

The most important project is what we usually refer to as the "Mint tools". These include the Software Manager, the Update Manager, the Driver Manager, the Software Sources management tool and smaller tools like the Upload Manager, the Backup Tool, the USB Image Writer and USB Stick Formatter, the Domain Blocker, the Welcome Screen. These are important because they are used by all our users across all editions.

The biggest development project is Cinnamon. In version 2.0 it includes the following sub-projects: cjs, cinnamon-session, cinnamon-settings-daemon, cinnamon-desktop, cinnamon-control-center, cinnamon, muffin, nemo, cinnamon-bluetooth and cinnamon-screensaver. It has become a complete desktop environment (mostly by necessity and for compatibility/portability reasons). Innovation happens mostly in the visual components: cinnamon, muffin, nemo, and cinnamon-screensaver.

Another important aspect of development are the technologies developed around MATE such as mintdesktop and mintmenu. And finally there's MDM, the display manager. It is used in all editions and it's quite an important project for us.

Recently some distributions such as Cinnarch have decided to drop Cinnamon in favor of GNOME due to technical problems with Cinnamon and upstream GNOME packages. What do the Cinnamon developers plan to do to rectify these issues?

Linux Mint maintains three releases at any given time: the latest release, the latest LTS release and LMDE. Linux Mint is also the center of attention for most Cinnamon developers and one important thing for Cinnamon is to be compatible with all target releases maintained by Linux Mint.

Now, it is important to understand one thing: GNOME changes every six months and its components often break compatibility with previous versions of themselves. This means for instance that gnome-settings-daemon doesn't speak the same language or that gnome-bluetooth doesn't answer the same DBUS calls between versions 3.2, 3.4, 3.6, 3.8 of GNOME.

When Cinnamon was just a frontend, it had to speak the same language as the GNOME backend it was using. In the scope of Mint this meant it had to be compatible with GNOME all the way to version 3.6. Not only did GNOME 3.8 introduce important regressions, it was a version of GNOME that wasn't used in Mint, Ubuntu or Debian. So when Arch and Fedora upgraded to GNOME 3.8 they basically broke Cinnamon 1.8, which was compatible with version 3.6, and none of our developers were focused on these distributions or this version of GNOME.

There was a bit of a political argument there as well, since GNOME 3.8 compatibility was not considered urgent from a Linux Mint/Cinnamon perspective, and Cinnamon itself wasn't considered important enough by Arch to delay the GNOME 3.8 upgrade. Eventually we provided distributions using 3.8 a compatibility branch and things worked out.

This is also the reason most of the GNOME backend was forked recently. We don't want to release a frontend which is only compatible with specific versions of GNOME and plays catch up with changes it doesn't need every six months. We want to provide a desktop environment which works everywhere no matter what version of GNOME, if any at all, are present.

Cinnamon 1.8 talked to gnome-settings-daemon 3.6, cinnamon 2.0 will talk to cinnamon-settings-daemon 2.0. We're making sure everyone can use Cinnamon and that we can backport it easily.

Do you have plans or desires for additional sub-projects or a version of Linux Mint for mobile devices (e.g. Ubuntu for Phones, etc.)?

No, not at all.

The project receives financial support through sponsors such as BlueSystems and Opera Software, and partnerships including usage of DuckDuckGo as the distribution's default search engine and revenue from the MintBox, a Linux Mint-branded version of the CompuLab fit-PC3 with the distribution pre-installed. What percentage of the project's funding do these revenue streams provide aside from donations? What kind of feedback have you received from the community?

Our business plan is similar to the one used by TV and radio stations. We want to be funded by our users, directly via donations and indirectly via the traffic they generate in advertisement on our own websites and within Linux Mint on the search market. This is very important to us because it means our design isn't driven by anyone else, Mint continues to develop itself with its own community in mind and our development team doesn't need to engage in commercial activities where it would lose focus away from what really matters.

The feedback from the community is great. We were clumsy in the early days and didn't properly introduce the reasons as to why we used a modified version of Google for instance. But our business plan, our priorities were properly explained to our users and to our partners alike and we've had great responses since. Not everybody agrees with not using their favorite search engine of course, so we made it easy for people to change, but I think we were successful at raising awareness around this and introducing partners such as Yahoo and DuckDuckGo.

Our donations are also very high. Everything we do is with our users in mind and when we look at the number of donors at the end of each month, it's like quantifying that happiness we manage to create in them, it's really motivating.

The partnership with BlueSystems will end [in September] for financial reasons. We had a great relationship with them and I hope we'll continue it again in the future. Partnerships with vendors are there to provide additional services and products which can be of interest to our users, they don't produce important sources of income. The MintBox for instance is something we're very excited about, it's something unique technologically. People wondered why we didn't sell budget laptops. Our core interest is the development of Linux Mint, not getting on additional markets, whether they would be profitable or not.

As the current Linux Mint Project Leader, how active are you in the project, its sub-projects and the day-to-day operations? Is it a full-time job/responsibility, or have other developers stepped in to take some of the weight off?

I still do mostly everything. But that's the way I like it. I wake up in the morning and I have enough work for the next 10 years.

Linux Mint started as a hobby, as something I was doing on my spare time. It grew and it's now something I do full time, every day and with no spare time left for anything else.

I get a lot of help from many people and from the community and I also have two other people working full time with me. I'm not interested in making Linux Mint grow fast though. Seeking investments, funds, renting an office, giving myself a job title and going to work every day as the boss of 20 newly hired engineers isn't what I have in mind. I love what I do, I work with passion, from home, with no commercial ties to anyone, and now and then I get in a position where I can secure yet another salary and make someone else join the adventure.

Knowing what you know now, what (if anything) would you have done differently to the project as a whole if you could go back and change it?

A few things come to mind, but I suppose only in light of the learning I got from the mistakes I made. I think the one thing I regret the most is giving people the impression I cared about politics and getting involved in something that had nothing to do with me. I hurt some people by doing that and that's something I'll always regret. I try and apologize as much as I can to whoever queries me on that and reassure them that absolutely everyone is welcome to join me, no matter where they're from, who they are and what their political beliefs might be. Dividing topics such as these are an awful waste of time. We're passionate about what we do and we do it together with people who don't necessarily agree on everything but agree on the fact that these topics aren't important here, so yes, I deeply regret taking position on one of these and you can be sure I learnt a lot from that and won't get close to any of that again any time soon. Now and then I turn on the TV to watch the news, and that's as far as it goes. When I'm in front of the computer I want to avoid all that, I want positive feelings, positive thinking, constructive interactions, and most of the time I seek sharing and creating new exciting things.

If you had the power to change one thing, no matter what that might be, about another FOSS project, what would the project be, what would you change and why?

Anyone has the power to change any FOSS project, that's the beauty of FOSS.

What non-Linux Mint open source projects are you currently most excited about and why? What other external projects are you involved in?

I'm really focused on Linux Mint. The only project outside of Linux Mint I'm involved with is one of our most important upstream components: The MATE desktop environment.

How can users support the project (financially, bug testing, development, etc.)?

There are many ways to support the project. Simply by running Linux Mint, enjoying it, giving us feedback and spreading the word people already help us a lot in promoting Linux Mint and making it better. Donations, sponsorship and usage of partnering search engines also helps us fund the project. Helping other people and writing tutorials on the community website, in the forums or on the IRC make it easier for newcomers to join us and for all of us to enjoy being together. And then of course, for people who are familiar with what we do, where our focus goes and what we're working on, we're always happy to welcome people within the team and to help them work with us on artwork, testing, development, design etc. The main thing here isn't skills or experience, but an understanding of what Linux Mint and its community are and how they work, what their priorities are.

If a community member / Linux Mint user recognized you and walked up to you in a pub and offered to buy you any drink, what kind of drink would you order?

Oh no, this is Ireland, we buy rounds of beer around here. He/she would have to order a pint for everyone in the group and join us in the rounds. The good news of course is that he/she would probably drink for free all night after that and get to know everyone pretty fast.

Christopher von Eitzen is a freelance technology writer specialising in open source and security, as well as mobile hardware and software platforms. You can follow on Twitter or Google+, or contact him by sending an email to chris@digitaldownfall.com.

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1 Comment

Peter Szollosi

1

Thanks you for this great article! Good questions and honest answers. I wish good luck to the Linux Mint project, it's already a great success to Clement & Co. Greetings from Hungary!

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