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An Interview With Clem Lefebvre

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If you look for the best Linux distros for everybody, you’ll definitely find Linux Mint among the top players. We recently reviewed the new version Linux Mint 20 “Ulyana,” based on the latest long-term Ubuntu 20.04 “Focal Fossa.”

To learn more about Linux Mint and its ongoing development, Fossbytes spoke to Linux Mint founder Clem Lefebvre.

Clem Lefebvre: The Man Behind Linux Mint

Hello Clement, welcome to Fossbytes! We thank you for your availability. I hope you, your family, and your team are all staying safe at home. How’s the lockdown at your place treating you in such a harsh situation that we are all going through (COVID-19)?

We can’t complain. COVID-19 affects everybody but things aren’t too bad around here. We’re on a small island, it’s quite rural and we’re used to working remotely.

So, before we get into more detail about your state-of-the-art Linux Mint, can you tell our readers something about you and your work? What do you do in your life and your spare time?

About me personally? I’m not sure that’s very interesting. Well, I love programming, but with Linux Mint I get to do that a lot. In my spare time, other than commonly enjoyed activities (learning, sports, TV, gaming, social), I like sim-racing.

How did you get introduced to Linux and the open-source world? What was your first operating system and open source project you contributed to?

On the University campus our terminals were connected to a central Unix (IBM AIX) server. This was in the late 90s, we had Windows at home, which looked more modern and had more applications but which lacked many of the cool things we were learning at school (remote terminals, concurrent users, file permissions, proper shell, processes, semaphores, etc).

When we first heard about Linux we saw it as a way to run Unix at home. We didn’t have to be on campus to enjoy it anymore and we could develop, compile and run our projects at home in an environment that was very similar to Unix.

It was also our first encounter with Free Software principles and the pioneer community that formed around Linux and that blew our minds, that was something we wanted to be a part of. Linux has been a hobby of mine since then, it’s always something I’ve been using, reading about, tinkering with, and which I wanted to work with.

The very first Linux I installed was Slackware. It was a set of 14 floppy disks distributed by Walnut Creek which was going around the campus. I used Slackware for years and really loved it. It still holds a very special place in my heart.

Throughout my career I was busy developing for commercial companies, web solutions first and then Java applications. I remember spending a lot of my spare time on the IRC helping people with Linux. When I joined the Linux community I was welcomed with open arms and people who were already there helped me through my first steps, showed a lot of patience and were delighted to be there for me.

I’ve always wanted to do the same for others. Nowadays the Linux community is completely different, it’s much bigger, more mainstream, less passionate to a certain extent, but that welcome still feels really important.

How was your special project Linux Mint born and what made you do so?

Well, it wasn’t really supposed to be a distribution. I was selling articles and tutorials about Linux to a popular website and at that time I wanted to try and host some of them myself. So I thought of a name, created linuxmint.com and started putting some of my new articles on it.

Other than tutorials and articles I also reviewed most of the distributions which were released at the time and after a while I had a pretty good idea of what they could do to improve the user experience.

This was in 2006 and as a desktop, Linux was still pretty rough. Ubuntu had pushed the expectations a little higher, and Mandriva before it, but we were still very far from a comfortable experience.

As an experiment, I started implementing some simple solutions which were lacking at the time and I put an .ISO on the website. This turned out to be more popular than my articles and eventually it became clear the audience I had wanted more implementations and less articles, so the focus shifted after Linux Mint 2.0 from just having fun to doing this seriously.

Why did you first choose Ubuntu? Why not Debian or Red Hat? But later you started another edition based on Debian.

The only distribution close to being comfortable out of the box for a casual (i.e. non-Linux enthusiast) user at the time was Ubuntu, and even Ubuntu had a long way to go.

Eventually when a distribution improves something, it takes time but all distributions benefit from it. Nowadays many distributions are easy to install and easy to use. Debian still requires a little more fiddling than Ubuntu but we can use it as a base and provide a user experience with it which is very similar. I’m not sure we could have done this at the time.

Although Ubuntu is only 2 years older than Linux Mint it already had pushed the desktop experience and ease of use forward. It is still a driving force and one of the major actors when it comes to innovation and making Linux more mainstream.

How do you differentiate between your Ubuntu and Debian editions? What advice would you like to give to people confused while choosing between them?

They’re very similar. Although they both have small pros and cons, the important thing for us is to make LMDE (the Debian edition) as close to the main edition as possible, in terms of features and experience. It’s there as a plan B in case we need to switch base one day.

It tells us how well we can do without Ubuntu, what we’d be missing and how much that would cost in terms of development. People can use LMDE if they want, but it’s done more for us than to attract users. If somebody is confused as to which to use they should definitely use Linux Mint (Ubuntu edition), that’s where our main focus is, that’s what most of our users use and that’s what has all the bells and whistles.

How do you coordinate your work? How many developers are involved in each edition?

We rely on fantastic tools. Git, github and slack in particular made working with other people such a treat. There are 21 team members at the moment but that number doesn’t really mean anything.

The availability of each member can vary greatly and it’s up to each individual to decide what they want to achieve or which projects they’re interested in. Within the Xapps and Cinnamon projects we also have members which come from other distributions, or who use Linux Mint but only work on cross-distribution projects, so you can’t always count them as Mint developers.

Currently, Mint comes in three editions: Cinnamon, MATE, Xfce. Can we expect a GNOME or KDE desktop environment for the future release?

No, we’re really happy with what we’re doing at the moment. We want to do it better and not get distracted. We don’t want to attract new people but please the ones we already have.

Which one is your favorite desktop environment?

It’s Cinnamon. It’s almost exactly what we want it to be. The desktop is a component within the overall distribution and like any other major components (the package base, the browser, the office suite, the GNOME/GTK ecosystem of apps, libs and toolkits).

It helps us build a product but somewhat also restricts and limits what we can or cannot do. Cinnamon is a Mint project, so although it is cross-distribution, it implements exactly what we need and lets us go further in what is possible to achieve.

Speaking of the Linux Mint 20, your decision to not ship any snaps or snapd made big headlines. And recently, the Ubuntu team also clarified their stance. So, are you going to talk with them and if they resolve it, would you include it in the next release?

If snap was fully optional, like it was in the past, we wouldn’t disable it.

If snap was open (i.e. if it could point to multiple servers and anyone could make a store) we’d also probably support it, like we do with Flatpak.

If snap remained closed but was limited to paid-applications that would be OK as well. For instance, we’re not asking Steam to be open-source, we’re just asking it to bring a solution to a problem we couldn’t solve, not create a problem for software we could already get ourselves in the past.

What are the next big enhancements that you’ll work to introduce in the upcoming version of Linux Mint 20? Have you decided the codename?

We don’t have a codename yet.

I don’t really like to talk about new features until they’re implemented and almost ready to be shipped. I’ll mention two of them though as we’re almost certain they’ll get in Linux Mint 20.1.

We’re working on a web-app management system, to easily create web-apps (i.e. websites which run in their window as if they were desktop applications). The idea comes from Peppermint. This lets you run a website directly from the application menu, switch to it easily with Alt-tab and the window list, pin it to your panel and manage it just like any other applications.

Another thing we’re working on is the ability to manage favorite files. At the moment you can only bookmark folders. We want to be able to right-click a file and make it a favorite. We want to be able to quickly access our favorite files from within the file browser, but also from within other applications and the application menu.

Recently, we’ve witnessed a lot of improvement for Linux on laptops and mobile phones. So many laptop vendors like Lenovo, Pine64, StarLabs are now coming with preloaded popular Linux distros like Ubuntu, Fedora, and Manjaro. Is there a Laptop vendor that you’re in contact with and collaborating to bring Linux Mint on a laptop by default?

We’ve had contacts with StarLabs, their laptops look very interesting. We could collaborate on a laptop, either if it felt really unique (like what we do with Compulab) or if it was affordable, durable and fully functional. Nothing’s coming up in the immediate future, but we’re open to the idea going forward.

Linux mint is now considered one of the top beginners’ choice alongside Ubuntu. Do you think Linux Mint has achieved what it aimed for?

Yes, I think it did very early but the goal kept changing. The initial goal was to have fun, that was achieved almost immediately. Then it was to rise to the top and although that’s highly subjective, that was also achieved very fast.

I don’t believe any distribution is “the best for everybody”, but like so many others, Mint is the best at implementing its own vision of what it wants to be.

There’s no better Linux Mint than Linux Mint.

It might sound like a silly thing to say but it reflects our main objective. People love what we do and we just want to do it better and better and better again. That’s the biggest goal going forward.

Besides Linux Mint, currently which Ubuntu derivatives you find interesting? Are you also involved in other external projects?

All distributions (and projects in general) are interesting and can teach us something. Debian derivatives are close cousins of ours because their solutions aren’t only potentially interesting but they often rely on technologies we already use.

If we see something we like in Windows 10 we can consider implementing it. If we see something we like in a Debian derivative not only can we learn from it but it’s probably open-source, in a language we enjoy, using libraries and toolkits we already use, so we can potentially use it as-is, ask for changes, collaborate on it, fork it, partially reuse it. It’s often much more useful than just a concept.

Small distributions are also interesting because they sometimes care about differentiating themselves and develop niche features. This has value because it lets us get feedback and appreciate the popularity of a given solution without spending resources on it or affecting our own audience.

We try to learn from everybody whenever we can. It doesn’t really matter where good ideas come from, but indeed when they come from the Linux community itself, and even more from Debian derivatives, it’s often easier to make use of them.

Would you like to guide our reader who wants to contribute to the Linux Mint project (financially, documentation, development or bug fixes)?

All our documentation is available at https://www.linuxmint.com/documentation.php, that includes a user guide, installation guide but also guides on how to get started with development, translations and troubleshooting.

There’s so many ways to get involved, the important thing is to have fun and to enjoy it. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in the community, make friends, have a look around and don’t be shy.

Linux and free-software are fantastic communities to join and discover. If you’re into development, the projects we work on are amazingly fun. Don’t miss out.

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