In 2005, having long been disillusioned with a succession of nasty products from Microsoft’s OS Team, I was running Mandriva Linux, the odd-ball child formed after the merger of Mandrake Linux (a French distribution) and the Brazilian Connectiva Linux. Well, Mandriva was struggling; though they tried hard to put polish on their desktop, they were coding with interpreted languages [primarily perl-GTK] and with the hardware of the day it was pretty sluggish. Then a friend introduced me to ubuntu Linux 5.10, “Breezy Badger”, and I haven’t really looked back since. Until recently, that is.

Mark Shuttleworth, the backer of ubuntu and Canonical, it’s commercial support company, has done amazing, incredible things: not just for ubuntu, but for Linux as a whole. It was Shuttleworth who took the concept of the 6-monthly release cycle for OS versions and made it mainstream, Shuttleworth who brought us the concept of “LTS – Long Term Support” releases; Shuttleworth who took the functional but ill-fitting individual parts of the Linux ecosphere and made them play nice, in a sweetly polished distribution: ubuntu.

So what happened? Well, weird stuff, really. A couple of years ago Mark decided that he didn’t like existing graphical desktops, and announced that ubuntu would drop the GNOME desktop in favour of a Canonical/ubuntu-developed alternative called Unity. If he’d done it when Unity was properly ready, I don’t think there would have been any push-back, but the first few releases were primitive and broke often. It’s getting better, but this was the first sign that Mark wanted to “go his own way”. Recently, there have been two more significant developments. Firstly, back in September last year, Mark announced that searches that user put to the “Dash” [a super-powerful command line] would now be sent to Canonical’s servers and then shared with initially Amazon, but possibly others. Second, he announced that Canonical are giving up on the Wayland graphical toolkit that underpins Unity [which as recently as 2010 was the best thing…] and is replacing it with something to be called Mir, which will be developed by Canonical.

In one sense, I applaud Mark for his courage and his vision and his willingness to put a vast amount of his own cash on the line to further his technical aspirations for the ubuntu distribution. On the other hand, I was deeply concerned by these recent choices: the “Dash” escapade because he does not seem to understand that no matter how harmless “Amazon” might be [and they’re not] Governments the world over will demand access to his aggregating infrastructure, and through it have a form of “remote access” to whatever any ubuntu user types into their Dash command line. Big Brother can definitely watch you, on your own machine… But perhaps more relevant to me: there was already Wayland, and there are others. Did we really need to iterate the N+1 problem and spin up yet another Linux desktop/GUI system, or would it have been better to work with Wayland and sort out the issues that Shuttleworth perceived? [ I suspect that the answer is tied to Mark’s desire to get ubuntu deployed on both Tablets and Mobile phones.]

Anyway, what to do? Stick with ubuntu and hope for the best, or go do something else? Enter Mint. Mint Linux is a relatively new but rapidly growing new distribution which is based upon … ubuntu. The key thing is, it doesn’t have Unity, the Dash… and it doesn’t spy on it’s users. Put another way, it contains all the best bits of ubuntu [which are, frankly, awesome], without any of the scary bits.

I had a couple of challenges getting Linux Mint to work on my main machine [a couple of partitioning issues, sound on web videos took a little tweaking] but it’s sweet, stable and very snappy. I’ve tried 2 variants, one with KDE and one with the lightweight xfce desktop. Both are slick, clean and very easy to use.

What’s not to like?