Linux Mint 13 gets back to desktop basics

The developers behind Linux Mint are simplifying the operating system's desktop interface

Bucking the trend of increasingly experimental desktop interfaces, the developers behind the Linux Mint are adopting a simpler desktop for the next version of the open-source Linux distribution.

Linux Mint 13 will feature an entirely new user interface, called Cinnamon. Earlier this week, the Linux Mint developers released a version of the shell. Previous editions of Linux Mint used a standard version of the Gnome environment.

"We're hoping [Cinnamon] will seduce most Linux Mint users, whether they're coming from Gnome 2, Gnome Shell or other desktops," said Linux Mint creator and lead developer Clement Lefebvre.

In a world where the interfaces of desktop operating systems are increasingly streamlined, Cinnamon appears to be quite a conservative design, not surprising given the goals of the Linux Mint project.

Lefebvre first crafted Linux Mint after reviewing other Linux distributions for various online forums. From this work, Lefebvre developed ideas about what features should be in the ideal distribution. He designed Linux Mint specifically for people who want a desktop OS that is easy to use and requires little maintenance.

"We expect much more from our desktop than other distributions. We look at common use cases and if they fail to work out of the box or if they're too complicated for the user, we identify it as a problem that needs fixing," he said.

Last year, Canonical announced it was changing the Ubuntu desktop from Gnome to the Unity interface, citing issues such as unnecessary features. Unity is shell, or overlay, for version 3 of Gnome, one that streamlined the interface so it could be used across more form factors. Canonical plans to advance its user interface even more with the next release of Ubuntu, with a new technology called Head-Up Display that will ultimately do away with application menus altogether.

While Canonical is rushing into the future with its new interfaces, Linux Mint remains steadfastly devoted to the traditional desktop. "Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS dominate the desktop market with inferior products. There's a huge potential for growth for Linux on the desktop market," Lefebvre said. "Our core expertise is on the desktop, we're not interested in smartphones, tablets and mobile devices."

Given that Linux Mint is based on the Ubuntu distribution (which is, itself, based on Debian Linux), it might seem that Linux Mint would use Unity as well. This is not the case, however. "So far Unity is only used by one other distribution. It doesn't look particularly interesting to us and there's no demand for it," Lefebvre said.

Nor does the Linux Mint team want to continue to use Gnome 3, which was released last August and was used in Linux Mint 12. Gnome 3 asks people to change the way they use their computers, Lefebvre noted in a blog post last November. It requires users to think about using the computer in terms of the applications they want to use rather than tasks they want to complete. Nor does it multitask well, he charged. Lefebvre was not alone in his frustration: Linux maintainer Linus Torvalds has called Gnome 3 "an unholy mess."

Cinnamon, in many ways, returns to traditional notions of how desktop interfaces should be presented to users. For instance, the interface used a slim panel to hold icons for applications, operational status reports and basic commands. Cinnamon will allow users to place this icon panel along the top, or on the bottom, or even have two panels for both the top and the bottom. In a future release, users will be able to place the panel anywhere they want on the desktop. This approach is a notable contrast from Unity, the icon panel for which is affixed to the left-hand side of the screen.

With Cinnamon, users also can customize the look and feel of the desktop, as they easily could with earlier versions of Gnome. With a configuration tool called "Cinnamon Settings," users can pick from different themes, apply desktop effects, and add applets and extensions.

In addition to Cinnamon, Linux Mint 13 will also feature another desktop, called Mate, which applies a shell over Gnome 3 that presents an interface that replicates the experience of using Gnome 2.0. It will be for people who are used to the old interface or don't have the system resources to run Cinnamon, Lefebvre said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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