Meet the man behind Ubuntu MATE

Martin Wimpress started Ubuntu MATE as a hobby—and a way to keep his family happy. Now, it’s one of the most popular Linux distros.

ubuntu mate

Thus far, in my journey to interview the leaders of every major Linux distribution, I’ve talked with the people behind Ubuntu, elementary, Fedora and openSUSE. This time around, I talk with Martin Wimpress—the man behind Ubuntu MATE.

I asked very few questions in this interview primarily because Martin is, quite possibly, the longest-winded leader of any Linux distro on the planet—but in a very good way. I found his answers truly interesting and uniquely different than the other interviews in this series.

This is a lengthy read. I know. But if you’re interested in what can happen when one person decides to make his own Linux distribution, as a hobby for personal reasons, I recommend taking the time to ingest it all. 

martin wimpress

Martin Wimpress

Bryan: Let’s start out with a softball. In as few words as humanly possible, what is Ubuntu MATE?

Martin: “Ubuntu MATE is a stable, easy-to-use operating system with a configurable desktop environment. It is ideal for those who want the most out of their computers and prefer a traditional desktop metaphor. With modest hardware requirements, it is suitable for modern workstations, single board computers (such as as the Raspberry Pi) and older hardware alike. Ubuntu MATE makes modern computers fast and older computers usable.”

Bryan: What is it about MATE that makes it the best desktop environment for what you’re trying to do? Why not, say, GNOME, LXDE, XFCE, etc.?

Martin: “I would never say MATE is the best desktop environment. As Linux users, we are spoilt for choice with regards to how we interact with our computers, consequently the Linux desktop is pretty much a 'horses for courses' affair. There is a desktop environment to suit just about every personal preference. Some people prefer MATE.

The main reason why MATE is the best desktop environment for what I’m trying to do is because I love my wife and I also love Linux and Open Source. To understand that, here’s some back story.

I’ve been a full-time Linux user since 1995. I migrated my whole family from Windows to Linux in 2006 when Ubuntu Dapper Drake 6.06 was released. My family, with the exception of my father-in-law, are not really interested in technology or computers. Computers are merely tools they need to use to get stuff done. The stuff they most need to do is get online to browse the web, read email, organize photos and create the occasional document or spreadsheet. And print, they really love printing. They found the, then, GNOME2 user interface was intuitive and easy to use, and I didn’t have endless ‘support calls’ about viruses or other Windows-related foibles. Everyone was happy, all the way to Ubuntu 10.04.

Enter GNOME3 and Unity. My family are not in the slightest bit interested in relearning how to use a computer. These new desktop metaphors were out-right rejected by those closest to me. While trying to organize baby photos using GNOME3, my wife had ‘stern words’ with me; there might have been swearing.

Thinking on my feet, I uninstalled GNOME3 and installed MATE on her Arch Linux laptop. The reaction to the contemporary Linux desktops was similar from other family members. I was in significant danger of my family rejecting Linux and looking elsewhere.

I was an Arch Linux user by this time and happily using GNOME3, but I created a custom Arch Linux image with MATE to install on my family’s computers. They had their familiar desktop environment back, but the MATE builds on Arch were incomplete and somewhat buggy at that time. I started contributing upstream to fix MATE issues, which ultimately led to me becoming a core member of the MATE team and an Arch Linux TU maintaining MATE Desktop. This helped improve MATE, and wedded bliss was restored. Win!

Sadly, Arch Linux is an attention whore. Trying to keep multiple Arch Linux computers ticking over from a distance was a burden. Some family members didn’t take to Arch Linux and stopped using their computers altogether. Not good. There were even rumors of Apple Macs. I was facing the same problem. My family might reject Linux. Around that time, I was interviewed about the MATE Desktop on the Ubuntu Podcast, in which we discussed why MATE wasn’t available for Ubuntu. A couple of weeks later Alan Pope sent me an email with a link to a prototype .iso image he’d prepared of MATE running on an Ubuntu 14.04 base. It was a rough draft, but a glimpse of what might be, and it got my attention. Alan and I took a day off work and met as his house for a one-day sprint, and because I love my wife, Ubuntu MATE was born. 

Ubuntu MATE was created, primarily, to meet the needs of my family and to ensure Ubuntu MATE worked properly. I use it on all my computers every day. Even at work. Consequently, if you have any computing requirement in common with my family, my friends or me, then Ubuntu MATE can do it, and the tools to do it are either pre-installed or are one click away in the Ubuntu MATE Software Boutique. The Software Boutique is a 'less is more' approach applied to the App Store concept.

Ubuntu MATE also has a hardware partnership with Entroware, so we’ve been improving the out-of-box experience, too. This has resulted in the creation of Ubuntu MATE Welcome, which is not your average 'Welcome' screen that is typically just a collection of bland links. Ubuntu MATE Welcome is a virtual 'Martin' (although it is more a virtual 'Luke' now, as he has done most of the development of late) that introduces the user to Ubuntu MATE and guides them through getting connected, getting installed and completing post-install configuration. It actually does useful things, and each thing is simply explained with a button that can be clicked to do said thing.

I also believe that computing has to be accessible to all. And thanks to MATE’s GNOME2 heritage, we have just about the best accessibility integration available. Ubuntu MATE has been tested, and endorsed, by members of the Accessible Computing Foundation for use by blind or visually impaired individuals. I’m also active in my local Raspberry Pi community, and Ubuntu MATE is also available for the Raspberry Pi 2 and Raspberry Pi 3, bringing a 'real boy' desktop experience to a $35 computer, which is just about within reach of most people around the world.

The reason MATE can comfortably run on a relatively low-powered computer is because since the fork from GNOME2, the MATE team has removed legacy compatibility libraries and obsolete code. MATE is therefore a much lighter desktop environment than GNOME2 ever was. The MATE team has also worked hard aligning MATE with modern technologies, such as dconf/gsettings, gstreamer 1.x, systemd, GTK3, etc to keep it relevant while preserving the user experience that Sun Microsystems, RedHat and others invested so much time, effort and money into refining.

MATE Desktop is tried and tested, has modest hardware requirements and is highly configurable, making it an ideal foundation upon which to build a modern desktop operating system that respects the classic desktop interface. Ubuntu MATE is for people. For everyone. MATE makes this possible because its traditional desktop metaphor means that anyone who has encountered a computer sometime in the last 20 years already knows how to use it.” 

Bryan: That is, quite possibly, the best reason I have ever heard to build your own Linux distro. Now that Ubuntu MATE has grown tremendously in popularity—from a very personal project to hovering around the 15th spot on DistroWatch—has your involvement with, and approach to, the project changed?

Martin: “DistroWatch is a very poor metric for gauging popularity. Yet somehow DistroWatch is something people new to Linux know about, in the same way turtle hatchlings know to head for the ocean, and most people new to Linux start their journey with Distrowatch. It is, therefore, an important route to discovery, and it is very pleasing to see Ubuntu MATE ascend to a respectable position in the year since we’ve been listed.

In general, my role hasn’t changed. I’m project coordinator, casual developer, voice for the project and chief executive minion. But what has changed is how I do the work. 

At the outset, I was building MATE Desktop packages for Ubuntu in a PPA. This was no good. I went to the X2Go Gathering in Essen, Germany (at the Linux Hotel no less!) in October 2014 so I could meet Mike Gabriel, the Debian developer leading the MATE packaging effort. We drank beer, ate pizza, drank mate (fist bump) and then worked out how we could maintain MATE Desktop in Debian so it met the needs of both Debian and Ubuntu. I’m now member of the Debian pkg-mate team and have done the majority of the MATE 1.10 and MATE 1.12 packaging work, with Mike providing peer review and sponsoring the uploads to the Debian archive. MATE Desktop packages are synced to Ubuntu unchanged. With the exception of artwork, default settings and Ubuntu MATE Welcome, everything that makes up Ubuntu MATE is actually built in Debian. Two birds, one stone. Score! Or something?

While we were an unofficial Ubuntu 'remix' we needed an iso build system. Surprisingly most of my effort for the Ubuntu MATE 14.10 release was actually making the build system and taming EFI and SecureBoot. That was a massive waste of time. Gaining access to the official Ubuntu build infrastructure was my main motivation for seeking official Ubuntu flavor status. It pleases me greatly. I now have access to a great build system and a team of people who maintain it.

I had been feeling quite isolated as an independent 'remix,' but that soon faded. Ubuntu MATE is now very much a part of the Ubuntu family, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ubuntu developers carry out essential work on Ubuntu MATE (and the other official flavors) when something significant changes. Also, when the switch to systemd was approaching, I was contacted to discuss the implications for Ubuntu MATE, given access to the 'new stuff' along with testing and QA assistance. I’m invited to regular meetings with the Ubuntu Community Council to check how the project is progressing and what assistance I might require.

Ubuntu MATE now benefits from a QA process, and I’ve made contributions to many aspects of Ubuntu, mostly to support better Ubuntu MATE integration, all of which have been peer reviewed by Ubuntu developers. I’ve been made to feel very welcome and received assistance from about 20 Canonical staff along the way. I would strongly advocate that projects building on Ubuntu, that are not currently official flavors, request official status and start working toward becoming official. You really have no idea how much resource, expertise and assistance you’re missing out on that will absolutely improve the quality of your project. I stand firmly on the shoulders of the Ubuntu giants, and the view from up here is pretty great.

Although Ubuntu MATE was started as a personal project, it became clear very early on that people liked the idea. So, I decided to really go for it and really promote Ubuntu MATE. After all, only my pride was at stake. I engage with the Ubuntu MATE community, in all the places it resides, every day. And by engage, I mean have a conversation. Each morning, I catch up on the goings on in the various social networks, answer questions I can as I go and +1 stuff. I try to post some sort of project information to the social networks every day or so to keep people informed. I’ve also watched every single Ubuntu MATE YouTube video, even those that aren’t in English, and replied in the comments for a good number. Some of the best feedback and ideas for improving Ubuntu MATE have come from watching YouTube reviews. By 'meeting' with the community in the many places it can be found, I get a really good feel for what people want from Ubuntu MATE. Talking with the community is the part of the project I enjoy the most and devote the most time to.

What absolutely hasn’t changed is that the Ubuntu MATE community provides all the artwork and design, which is good because I suck at that kind of thing. If I gave Ubuntu MATE a voice, then the community absolutely gave Ubuntu MATE its character and identity.”

Bryan: How much time and energy does it take to be a “project coordinator, casual developer, voice for the project and chief executive minion” for Ubuntu MATE? That’s a lot of (rather heavy) hats.

Martin: “I start and finish my day catching up on the social networks and forums. That consistently takes about two hours a day. It turns out community building is harder work than I anticipated.

Project coordination can be broken down into lots of small tasks, such as discussions with other developers, updating project tasks, following up with users who are testing new features, working with translators or the artwork team, etc. This takes between four and eight hours per week, consisting of many tasks that may only take a few minutes to complete each. Most communication is via IRC, Telegram, Google+ and Twitter. I rarely use email.

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