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

The creator of the popular Linux distro talks candidly about his goals, his successes and his nightmares

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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 [ended 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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