HealthCheck: Linux Mint
By Richard Hillesley
The success of Linux Mint is down to its usability – easy to set up and get running and then use. The latest development is a new user interface, Cinnamon. Richard Hillesley looks at the history of Mint, claimed to be the second most popular Linux distribution after Ubuntu, and considers whether Cinnamon marks a turning point for the distribution.
In 2006, Clement Lefebvre, a French software developer and long time Linux user, was working for Ericsson in Ireland. Sometime in the summer of that year he began to toy with the idea of making his own distribution of Linux based on the Kubuntu Dapper code and using his own home made installer. The first release of Linux Mint was named Ada, perhaps in honour of Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer algorithm for Charles Babbage's never-built Analytical Engine in 1843. Mint's first release was more experimental than useful, and never achieved stability. But better things were to come.
The second release was based on Ubuntu's Edgy Eft release of November 2006. The most notable difference between Mint and Edgy, apart from a new colour scheme and the removal of Ubuntu's trademarks, was that Mint included support for proprietary codecs and "Ubuntu restricted extras" straight from the box. It was a small difference, but was popular with beginners who wanted a distro that was easy to install and easy to use.
Adding layers of usability to Ubuntu releases became Mint's speciality. Where Ubuntu set out to make Debian Sid accessible to the masses, Linux Mint made Ubuntu easier, or as one user put it: "Linux Mint made it easy to the point of mindless." Ease of use has the benefit of allowing the user to get on with his or her work, which is the first requirement for the kind of user who wants a system that "just works".
In subsequent releases Mint has added a range of utilities to simplify menus, software selection, desktop configuration, backup and update mechanisms; all this has added to its reputation as a distribution that does the simple things well. The add-ons which give Mint its distinctive identity are, for the most part, written in Python and are available through GitHub.
Justice is blind
The inclusion of proprietary codecs in Mint was a small but significant difference. Like many other versions of Linux, Ubuntu does not include proprietary codecs and fonts by default because they are subject to "copyright or legal issues in some countries". Users have the option to download the restricted extras, but the choice is theirs.
Ubuntu takes this position for good reasons, exemplified by the $1.53 billion judgement against Microsoft in 2007 for infringing a patent on MP3 audio compression technologies; this was taken out by Bell Laboratories and held by Alcatel-Lucent. Microsoft later appealed the judgement and the case was settled in 2008, costing Microsoft many millions, but the point was made.
Although MP3 is an acknowledged standard, recognised by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1993, the format contains technologies that were subject to patents in certain jurisdictions, and whatever the rights and wrongs of patents on software techniques or mathematical formulae, litigation is an expensive and wasteful undertaking for a Linux distribution.
Many common formats that are vital for interoperability, playback and expression on the web are subject to some kind of legal restraint, and Ubuntu's package of "restricted extras" are an essential element in a user's experience, for example, you will not find the web as enjoyable without audio playback, correct fonts and flash animation. Mint adds those missing components and more such as MP3 playback and decoding, GStreamer plug-ins, Microsoft fonts, the Java runtime environment, Flash plug-in and DVD playback.
The restricted extras can be downloaded from the Ubuntu Software Center, but in 2006 users had to jump some hurdles to get the codecs working – easy for the long-time Linux user, but not so easy for beginners for whom software repositories and source lists were a thing of mystery.
Lefebvre reasoned that Linux Mint was able to include the restricted extras by default because it is "designed in Ireland and conforms to both Irish and European law". And although Mint also provides an edition without the codecs which users can redistribute as they wish "without having to fear the nonsense of their own legal systems", in Lefebvre's experience users "usually use codecs anyway, even in the USA. It's their own decision whether they want to do it or not."