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Linux Mint: from freedom came eleganceFor several years now, Ubuntu has been the reigning champion among desktop Linux distributions, and has also made major gains in the server market, but we may be witnessing the beginning of its downfall. A series of unpopular user interface overhauls have left many users searching for alternatives, and it looks like Linux Mint is set to benefit the most from these blunders.

 

It all began in April 2010, when Ubuntu released its latest long-term support version, 10.04. Ubuntu's development company, Canonical, hinted that some major interface changes were coming, and started with a teaser: moving the window control buttons from the right side of the window to the left. Immediately, this was almost universally regarded as a poor usability decision, due to users' tendency to accidentally click the close button when trying to access an application's menu, but Canonical insisted that the change was part of a greater vision and said to stay tuned.

Then, a year later, Ubuntu 11.04 introduced desktop users to a new environment called Unity, which Canonical had developed from scratch. Unity was supposed to be an alternative to the unpopular Gnome Shell environment which had recently begun to replace the traditional interface in some other Linux distributions, but Unity proved to be just as unpopular, if not moreso. Unity introduced a number of new usability problems, and it removed functionality that many people had grown to depend on over the years. The primary benefit of the change was that Unity could serve as a single interface that works for both mobile/touchscreen environments and traditional desktop environments, although it doesn't particularly excel at either. Again, Canonical took a rigid stance, saying this was their vision for how user interfaces should be, and people should just get used to it. The one saving grace for disillusioned users was that they could still switch back to the classic interface if they wanted.

ubuntuAnd then came Ubuntu 11.10 last month, which removed the option to use the classic interface and forced all users to stick with either Unity or their somewhat hacked-together version of Gnome Shell. (It's still technically possible to install any other environment you want, but it involves some advanced steps and a lot of complications that most users won't want to deal with.)

Before last month's release, I had predicted that we'd start to see a large-scale migration of users from Ubuntu to alternatives, with Mint likely being the next distribution of choice. This is because Mint has specifically positioned itself as an equivalent to Ubuntu, but with its unpopular decisions replaced with the community's preferences. Now, not yet a month after the Ubuntu 11.10 release, we have evidence that this migration is indeed happening.

On November 4, Mint project leader Clement Lefebvre posted on the Mint developer blog, "As other distributions adopted new desktops such as Unity and Gnome 3, many users felt alienated and consequently migrated to Linux Mint. We recorded a 40% increase in a single month and we’re now quickly catching up with Ubuntu for the number #1 spot within the Linux desktop market.

A 40% increase in a month is a huge deal, especially considering that Mint was already considered one of the five most popular desktop Linux distributions. Still, that figure only tells part of the story; it would be more useful to see the market shares of each distribution and compare them over time. Unfortunately, while it's fairly easy to get those kinds of statistics for web browsers via sites like StatCounter and NetApplications, or for webservers via sites like W3Techs and BuiltWith, there aren't any similar sources of desktop Linux distribution statistics. The best we have is a site called DistroWatch, which is only able to estimate from the users it sees on its own website. Due to the nature of the site, their figures likely have bias toward diehard fans of each distribution, but it could be useful to provide an early indication of coming trends.

DistroWatchBefore the release of Ubuntu 11.10, DistroWatch listed Linux Mint in third place, behind Ubuntu and Fedora. This line-up mostly jived with the common wisdom of which desktop Linux distributions were most popular. Since then, the number of Mint users on DistroWatch has shot way way up, blowing past Ubuntu for first place on the chart. In this last week, DistroWatch recorded more than three times as many Mint users as Ubuntu users. Meanwhile, Ubuntu has fallen down to fourth place, below openSUSE. This in no way suggests that more people are currently using Mint than Ubuntu, but it does suggest that we're seeing a huge boom in enthusiasm around the Mint distribution, which could indicate the start of a trend in usage overall.

Following this surge in Mint users, DistroWatch posted an article attempting to explain what it was witnessing: "Of course, this little piece of statistic doesn't mean that Linux Mint has suddenly more users than Ubuntu, far from it. But it does perhaps indicate the increasing dissatisfaction of users with Canonical's flagship product and a growing interest in an alternative, at least among those Linux users who frequent this website. And in many ways, Linux Mint is a perfect option - it's still more or less Ubuntu, but without the unpopular changes that have given many Ubuntu users nothing but frustration."

In Lefebvre's November 4 post on the Mint blog, he also announced their plans moving forward with Mint 12—due for release late November or early December—and beyond. Their main focus is on preserving the excellent user experience of Gnome 2, while moving the underlying technology stack forward with Gnome 3. To do this, they are developing a set of extensions to Gnome 3 which will restore most of the functionality and paradigms of Gnome 2. They are also working with the MATE project to bring forward a genuine continuation of the Gnome 2 platform for users who want it. Mint users will also have the option to use Gnome 3's standard Gnome Shell interface if they wish.

Although Mint is based on Ubuntu, it's very unlikely that Mint will support the Unity environment, due to the number of conflicts it has with Gnome 3 and MATE, and the fact that their users don't seem to want it. At this point, no distribution other than Ubuntu plans to use Unity by default, and Ubuntu's developers will have a hard time convincing anyone to change their minds if Ubuntu's market position continues to slip. It's one thing to try using your market dominance to set new trends, but no one wants to be the odd man out on a decision that ends up sinking your ship.

Canonical may still be in denial about the impact of their decisions, but one of the nice things about Linux's open ecosystem is that the users don't have to wait for them to figure it out.<>