2011-07-11

The Future of Various Linux Mint Editions

Today, I was reading DistroWatch when I saw an interesting tidbit about how Linux Mint's KDE Edition is moving to a Debian base, though the developers originally intended this KDE release to be based on Ubuntu as before. I think the reason why I felt as surprised as I did was because as opposed to the other editions (Xfce, Fluxbox) which were announced as moving to a Debian base without any previous statements regarding them, the developers did say the KDE edition of Linux Mint would be based on Ubuntu, and judging from the forum posts, this decision seems to have been rather abrupt, as opposed to being more carefully planned.

I think this will be a good thing for the developers and for some users. First, the developers can focus even more on the Ubuntu-based main GNOME edition, while the other editions can get the latest software with less maintenance on the part of the developers. Second, the users will be able to get the latest KDE releases thoroughly tested by the developers through the official repositories without having to resort to PPAs, as is almost always the case in Ubuntu-based releases (and even then, sometimes the latest PPAs don't support even slightly older releases of Ubuntu — for example, I couldn't test KDE 4.6 with a PPA on Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora", which is based on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS "Lucid Lynx").

But for a few reasons, I also feel less enthusiastic about this move than I did with the development of the original Debian-based GNOME edition and the move of the Xfce and Fluxbox editions (the latter of which still hasn't been officially released yet, thanks to the developers' utter devotion to providing quality releases for users regardless of schedules, unlike another certain Linux organization I know whose name starts with a 'C' and ends with an 'anonical'). Why?
First, I and other reviewers have found the Debian-based Linux Mint editions to be a little less stable and slightly rougher around the edges than the main Linux Mint edition. This is supposed to be fixed in the next few weeks or so with the introduction of update packs, which consists of the developers thoroughly testing packages from Debian Testing (to whose repositories Debian-based Linux Mint points by default) and then releasing collections of those packages to users in one month intervals if and only if those packages are stable and don't cause conflicts or breakages. Hopefully the Debian-based KDE edition will be released around the same time as that and not before, so that stability is less of an issue.
Second, I've found that there isn't quite as much software available for Debian as there is for Ubuntu; for example, if I wanted to install the Nautilus Elementary mod, I could just use a PPA in Ubuntu, but I would need to compile the source code and manually install that in Debian. Related to that, I've found that hardware isn't quite as well supported in Debian as in Ubuntu. For example, Skype has been problematic in Debian-based Linux Mint but not at all in Ubuntu-based Linux Mint. That's a deal-breaker for me, and I'm sure it's a deal-breaker for a large number of Skype users on Linux Mint.
Third, as I briefly mentioned above, the Xfce and Fluxbox editions of Linux Mint moved to the Debian base so that the developers wouldn't have to expend as much effort to maintain them and they could focus more on the main Ubuntu-based editions. The move of the KDE edition happened for a totally different reason: the maintainer of that edition was having some small issues trying to get a fully working system (I believe the issues related to the network management program), so the fix was to move to a Debian base. I'm not really sure I get that. Was it that bad? Couldn't the KDE edition use a few more maintainers to get these sorts of things ironed out? Or is there only one maintainer due to the low take rate relative to the other editions? In that case, does it make sense to continue maintaining a separate KDE edition at all/would it be better to create a sort of customized Linux Mint KDE package available to both the Ubuntu- and Debian-based Linux Mint editions?
Or better yet (and please keep in mind that this question is coming from a nontechnical newbie), could the problem have been avoided altogether by starting from Kubuntu instead of Ubuntu? After all, as far as I can tell, the Linux Mint KDE edition is basically little more than Kubuntu with different applications and a different Plasma theme and wallpaper. This is in contrast with the main GNOME edition, which before had a different desktop layout and Linux Mint Menu in addition to the application modifications, and now diverges significantly from the Unity interface included by default in Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal". Also, related to this, while Ubuntu continues to stray farther and farther from what users actually expect, Kubuntu is getting more and more refined, and in version 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot", it's supposed to get a new package manager called Muon to replace the aging KPackageKit (along with, if I remember right, a new update manager too); Linux Mint KDE users would benefit not just by having a wider software selection, better hardware support, and support for Ubuntu PPAs, but would also benefit from these innovations and more guaranteed stability if Kubuntu was used as the base.
Finally, there's a part of me that instinctively associate Linux Mint KDE releases with an Ubuntu base. Part of that stems from the earlier announcements that there would be a Linux Mint 11 "Katya" KDE, and part of that stems from the fact that Linux Mint actually started as a KDE distribution based on Ubuntu (it wasn't really until version 3.0 "Cassandra" that GNOME became favored over KDE, as far as I've read), so this move would constitute Linux Mint abandoning its roots. If there is to be a Debian-based KDE edition, I'd at least like to see a simultaneous effort to release Linux Mint 11 "Katya" KDE, hopefully with more developers on board. Then again, it has been a while since Linux Mint 11 "Katya" GNOME came out, and even longer since Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" came out, and Ubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot" isn't that far away, so it's pretty late in the release cycle to release an Ubuntu-based Linux Mint KDE edition, and that's something the developers wanted to do away with entirely by moving the Xfce and Fluxbox editions to the Debian base. Maybe the problems will be ironed out in time for a Linux Mint 12 "L[...]a" KDE release soon after the release of the corresponding GNOME edition.

In short, I'm more ambivalent about a Debian-based Linux Mint KDE edition than about Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME, Xfce, and Fluxbox editions. Plus, I wonder why the LXDE edition is sticking with the Ubuntu base. I think that's because it was originally planned that the LXDE edition, like the KDE edition as originally announced, would stick with the Ubuntu base, and there were fewer problems so a live CD image could be pushed out faster. What do you think?

12 comments:

  1. Although Mint is still denying this atm, I'm sure they will sooner or later move EVERYTHING over to Debian, including the main edition. With Mint having their own install and update tools and Ubuntu optimizing more and more for unity I think it's the better way. You can use Ubuntu PPAs in Debian BTW, you just have to use the manual for oder Ubuntu releases (means you have to add it by URL like any other repository and grab the pgp keys separately.)

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  2. As Axel notes you can use PPA's with a debian testing based system. Obviously the problem with ppa's is that many of the packagers will assume you are running ubuntu offering only the opportuity to guess which ubuntu release is closest to your own system and so sometimes they will have a dependency on a package that is in the ubuntu repo's but not yet in debian testing.

    Your third point doesn't seem to be a point. The reason for switching the KDE base to debian seems to be exactly the same as the reason for switching the fluxbox and xfce base. Maintaining the ubuntu base was taking too much effort so they switched to a debian base that they find easier to maintain.

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  3. Im already runniung lmde with KDE and LOVE IT!!!

    I just installed kde from the repos after installing lmde xfce.

    Honestly I think that going to debian will be a great move for the LM team.....I finally had to get away from *buntu not because of unity (I could easily use xubuntu etc) but because their release model is ****ed. Think about it.....ubuntu re-forks from debian sid every 6 months. It would be one thing if they forked it once and continued from there BUT what they do is fork from sid and then try to make an upgrade path from their last fork, that is INSANE.

    why do you think LM recommends a full reinstall instead of upgrading on the ubuntu based versions? I mean thats pretty drastic for a distro geared at being easy. Its because ubbuntu is not an evolving distro....its a heavily modified fork trying to upgrade to another heavily modified fork, they just happen to use the same package manager.

    long story short I am not using or recommending ubuntu to anyone anymore. not because I am on a high horse or anything like that but because after too many upgrade hells and a little research I have found their model to be flawed.....and dont even get me started on 6 months wether its ready or not business.

    thanks and happy linuxing :)

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  4. Canonical has problems. Both Xubuntu and alternate panicked on my Athlon x4 (can't handle page fault) while Mint10 has no problems. If Canonical can't get it together soon they are due for a fall.

    And I'm seeing a surge in interest in XFCE and LXDE, so the KDE4 and Gnome groups should take heed or be left by the wayside.

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  5. Personally I have no problem with Mint moving to a Debian Base. In fact Debian is notorious for being unfriendly to users, so if Mint can change that and do a polished job of it then more power to them. I can dream od a clean, easy to used highly polished debian system that is a rolling release. My biggest issue right now is that all the Mint debian releases to date have been a bit rough and still remain so (though they have improved considerably - especially LMDE). If mint manages to overcome the rough edges, make their debian based editions easy for noobs and power users alike, and give users the option to remove mint from search engine results, then debian should be a perfect fit for mint. That said, with all Desktop environments moving to a mic of local and cloud base and combining traditional desktop UIs with touch based tablet UIs, as good as Mint is, it might end up becoming the best of yesterday's UI unless they end up playing a little catch up. I suspect that onec the Unity/Gnome shell shake up settles doanw and both products mature, that mint will adopt one or both of the shells for future editions.

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  6. Personally, I had zero interest in Mint until the Debian based release came out and I hope to see all future efforts expended on a nice Debian based Mint with all support for Ubuntu dropped.

    Another thing...... It's unfortunate that we must continually explain this: Ubuntu and Debian are binary incompatible (Ubuntu's choice) There for Ubuntu ppa's are NOT compatible w/ Debian but they are a sure fire way to break your system.

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  7. @Axel668: It may be technically possible to use the PPAs, but will the installed packages written for Ubuntu work for Debian without major tweaking?
    @T_Beermonster: You're right that my thing about them basing Linux Mint KDE on Kubuntu as opposed to Ubuntu to make things work doesn't really make sense. Maybe I'll edit the post later. But I still feel, at least in my gut (I know, silly, right?), that this seems like a cop-out, and at the very least, there should have been more developers contributing to the KDE edition to prevent a base switch from happening for this sort of reason.
    @Anonymous 1: Yeah, I always wondered why Ubuntu made it such that simply updating the repositories and upgrading the system wouldn't work right.
    @Anonymous 2: I can certainly see the increase in Xfce and LXDE usage happening at the expense of GNOME 3, but not at the expense of KDE 4. I feel like the exodus away from KDE happened between versions 4.0 and 4.2, and that since then users have only been coming back or starting fresh with KDE. I can't see why anyone would want to leave KDE now (if they've stuck with KDE 4 these few years) given that it's already very stable and is just getting better and better.
    @Anonymous 3: I agree with most of what you say except the last part. I think the attraction to Linux Mint and the reason it's going to overtake Ubuntu as the most popular Linux distribution is exactly because it gives a high-quality, polished, traditional desktop experience instead of half-baked cloud nonsense.
    @Glenn Greenfield: I thought as much myself.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  8. If Mint moves from Kubuntu base to Debian base then I'll go back to Kubuntu straight away. Period. No negotiations.

    And another thing - even with the world's most used OS (Windows), upgrading is a last resort and a fresh install is recommended. You only upgrade on server systems where installed apps can't be installed again and user data is already in place etc. So Ubuntu forking from Debian often is actually preferred.

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  9. I'm not sure the argument that because Windows advises a full reinstall this constitutes best practice for an unrelated OS is a very good one.
    Ubuntu forking from debian sid every six(ish) months is obviously preferred by Canonical, but the increasing popularity of rolling release distros suggest that a significant number of people prefer an install once and upgrade in place model.

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  10. @Nick: I understand that you need an Ubuntu base more than a Debian base, and that's also partly why I have reservations about this move. But I'm not sure why Microsoft Windows requiring clean installations of new versions makes that a good thing, and I'm not really sure what you mean by your last sentence.
    @T_Beermonster: True that.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  11. Mint 9 Xfce (based on Xubuntu) is flawless, fast, perfect. It's not polluted with PulseAudio like Xubuntu is (easily fixed tho), nicely polished. But the switch to Debian has me going back to Xubuntu when Mint 9 reaches end-of-life. No one has done a better job of making Debian "user friendly" than Ubuntu. Perhaps Mint will catch up and make Debian as effortless and easy as Xubuntu has, but it's obvious that they've got a long way to go yet.

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  12. @robinsrantsandraves: Yeah, the Linux Mint developers still have a little bit of work to do in the polish department for the Debian-based editions. Right now, I think the Debian-based GNOME edition is the most polished, but they're supposed to release a whole bunch of new Debian-based snapshots soon, so I'll see how those turn out. Thanks for the comment!

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