Since 2009 Lefebvre has been able to devote himself full time to the project, and Mint has gained a large and busy community of users and a solid core of developers. Mint is on an upward trajectory, and is especially popular with new users and a growing number of self-proclaimed refugees from the GNOME Shell and Unity, who don't want to adjust to a new set of paradigms for using the desktop.
Although Mint remains dependent on the Ubuntu repositories, and follows the Ubuntu release cycles, it has gradually diverged in its software selection and addition of core utilities. Software choices, menu behaviour, update mechanisms and system utilities have been modified as Mint has responded to changes in Ubuntu and the demands of its own community.
More recently, the experiment with a Debian software base, the escape from Unity, the Mint shell extension for GNOME 3 which is included in Linux Mint 12, and the recently announced Cinnamon fork of the GNOME shell, all suggest that as Mint goes forward it will be less reliant on Ubuntu as a framework for future development.
Ubuntu has the biggest and most active user community among Linux distributions, but is not community driven. Mint, in contrast, sees itself emphatically as a community-driven distribution, and makes a virtue of listening to its users, who influence and change the direction the distribution takes. "Users are encouraged to send feedback to the project so that their ideas can be used to improve Linux Mint", the Mint developers declare.
During the last year Mint has risen to the top of the Distrowatch charts, which may not be the most accurate indicator of user numbers, but does reflect approval for the choices Mint has made. Mint itself claims to be "the 4th most widely used home operating system behind Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS and Canonical's Ubuntu."
Looking back to go forwards
Mint is popular for many reasons. The distribution is easy to use, and its software choices are community driven. The core distribution is based on Ubuntu, and remains sufficiently like Ubuntu to catch the imagination of escapees (permanent or temporary) from the GNOME shell and Unity. But where Ubuntu (and GNOME) have taken a leap of faith in an attempt to anticipate the desires of future users, Mint is intent on satisfying the demands of its current users, which is to produce a desktop that is both innovative and closer to GNOME 2.
Reactions to Ubuntu's Unity shell and GNOME 3 vary, but a common response among users is that the transition to the GNOME shell and to Unity has been too sudden and too soon. Both are perceived as lacking in features and too divergent from previous incarnations of the Linux desktop. In the case of Unity, the situation was probably forced on Canonical by the advent of GNOME 3. Ubuntu either had to go with the GNOME Shell or put Unity in place before the transition to GNOME shell was complete as a means of minimising the disruptive effect on users of multiple changes to the interface; it had intended to develop its own shell anyway. GNOME's hand was probably forced by the impracticalities of maintaining what amounted to two versions of the code.
Criticisms of both the GNOME shell and Unity may be premature, and perceptions may change over time. Nevertheless, the acerbic suggestion by Linus Torvalds that "the developers have apparently decided that it's 'too complicated' to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do" has resonated with many users.
Mint tries to get around the problems of the GNOME shell and Unity in a number of different ways. Unity is ignored. Linux Mint 12, released in December and named Lisa (following the convention of naming each release in alphabetical sequence after a woman's name), allows you to choose between GNOME 3 Shell with Mint extensions, MATE, which is a fork of GNOME 2, and the GNOME 3 fallback mode.
Each is an attempt to replicate some aspects of the GNOME 2 experience, with varying success.