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Sugar and spice

It is arguable that none of these solutions provides a satisfactory long term alternative to GNOME 2, which is what many users are hoping for, but they go some way to making the transition easier. Mint has shown its intent by going one stage further and forking GNOME 3 via Cinnamon to achieve the objective that most users will be happy with, a merger between the best of GNOME 3 and the behavioural patterns of a "classic" desktop.

GNOME 3 with MGSE (Mint GNOME Shell Extensions) is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint 12, and is an elegant and clever (albeit temporary) solution to the problem, replicating the traditional components of GNOME 2 through a desktop layer that sits on top of GNOME 3.

The components can be disabled to reproduce the pure GNOME 3 experience, or enabled to add a bottom panel, application menu, window list, and visible system tray icons. MGSE realigns GNOME 3 as a task-centric desktop which allows you to switch between windows, rather than applications, thus reproducing much of the behaviour of a traditional desktop environment, whilst simultaneously allowing the user to access GNOME 3 features in the usual manner.

MATE is a fork and continuation of GNOME 2 which may be satisfactory in the short term but is likely to have a limited shelf life. That is unless, against all expectations, it picks up a large and thriving developer community which is able to continue development, and provide continuity with existing GNOME libraries and applications. Lefebvre has stated his intention to continue support for MATE. "MATE is different (to Cinnamon)", he wrote on the Mint forums. "It feels different and it provides different features. Both desktops will appeal to different categories of users and so we're likely to support both." The fallback mode of GNOME 3 is a subset of GNOME 3 designed for machines that do not support 3D effects, and is in effect a watered down GNOME 2-like environment.

Alternatively, Mint also has Ubuntu-based KDE and LXDE editions, and an Xfce edition based on Debian. Both LXDE and Xfce can be considered as lightweight alternatives to GNOME 2.

Back to the future

Cinnamon, which was announced after the release of Lisa, goes a step further, and is a fork of GNOME 3. If Cinnamon is successful this could be a defining moment for Linux Mint, the moment when Mint pulled away from both its Ubuntu roots and GNOME 3, redefining itself in the process.

Zoom Cinnamon, Mint's new interface

Cinnamon is a solution to the problem, as many users see it, of GNOME shell and Unity. They are redefining the way the desktop behaves, but from the point of view of many users, are tied to a particular vision of a web-based and device-driven future that doesn't fit the way that many users work, and leaves them with no way back. MGSE, as shipped with Linux Mint 12, can be seen as a prototype for the future Cinnamon desktop, which can be more tightly integrated into the GNOME shell code, with the rough edges removed and a bit of lick and polish added.

Cinnamon is the logical conclusion of the MGSE enhancements to GNOME 3, bringing the paradigms of a classic desktop to the GNOME shell, and may be a make or break moment for Linux Mint. As Lefebvre expressed it in the Cinnamon project README file: "The desktop layout is similar to GNOME 2. The underlying technology is forked from GNOME Shell. The emphasis is put on making users feel at home and providing them with an easy to use and comfortable desktop experience."

It is a defiantly retrogressive step and subverts the vision of the GNOME developers. But it also fits what users have asked for.

Lefebvre has looked for points of harmony in the ways that a user works between GNOME 2 and the GNOME shell, and for better or worse has brought them together in one environment. Forking the code allows the Mint developers to integrate MGSE properly and reshape the desktop to fulfil their own ideas of what the user experience should be. GNOME won't accept the changes, and Mint wont be shipping the GNOME shell "as is". So a fork becomes inevitable.

Lefebvre's aim is clear. "There's a new generation of desktops out there", he has written, "including GNOME Shell and Unity. These desktops are shiny, they look good and they're slowly gaining popularity. They're based on new and exciting technologies but they also come with a cost... they're re-inventing the way we use our computer. It's neither right or wrong of course, but it will only appeal to a certain category of users... and there are a lot of people out there, myself included, who aren't convinced the traditional desktops were bad and who are concerned about not having a choice as more and more people switch towards these new technologies. With Cinnamon we're jumping on these new technologies and we're able to provide something that looks as modern as Unity and Shell, without reinventing the wheel when it comes to user experience."

Mint began as an experiment, and happened upon a niche in the market where people were looking for an easy way to install codecs, and became popular as a result. But ultimately, the development of Cinnamon may be Mint's defining moment.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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