Linux Mint introduces its own take on the Chromium web browser

Mint's developers, with some new hardware, have taken on the job of compiling and releasing Mint's own version of the open-source Chromium web browser.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Linux Mint is a very popular Linux desktop distribution. I use the latest version, Mint 20, on my production desktops. That's partly because, while it's based on Debian Linux and Ubuntu, it takes its own path. The best example of that is Mint's excellent homebrew desktop interface, Cinnamon. Now, Mint's programmers, led by lead developer, Clement "Clem" Lefebvre, have built their own take on Google's open-source Chromium web browser.

Some of you may be saying, "Wait, haven't they offered Chromium for years?" Well, yes, and no. 

For years, Mint used Ubuntu's Chromium build. But then Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, moved from releasing Chromium as an APT-compatible DEB package to a Snap.

The Ubuntu Snap software packing system, along with its rivals Flatpak and AppImage, is a new, container-oriented way of installing Linux applications. The older way of installing Linux apps, such as DEB and RPM package management systems for the Debian and Red Hat Linux families, incorporate the source code and hard-coded paths for each program.

While tried and true, these traditional packages are troublesome for developers. They require programmers to hand-craft Linux programs to work with each specific distro and its various releases. They must ensure that each program has access to specific libraries' versions. That's a lot of work and painful programming, which led to the process being given the name: Dependency hell.

Snap avoids this problem by incorporating the application and its libraries into a single package. It's then installed and mounted on a SquashFS virtual file system. When you run a Snap, you're running it inside a secured container of its own. 

For Chromium, in particular, Canonical felt using Snaps was the best way to handle this program. That's because Alan Pope, Canonical's community manager for Ubuntu engineering service, explained, 

Maintaining a single release of Chromium is a significant time investment for the Ubuntu Desktop Team working with the Ubuntu Security team to deliver updates to each stable release. As the teams support numerous stable releases of Ubuntu, the amount of work is compounded. Comparing this workload to other Linux distributions which have a single supported rolling release misses the nuance of supporting multiple Long Term Support (LTS) and non-LTS releases.

Google releases a new major version of Chromium every six weeks, with typically several minor versions to address security vulnerabilities in between. Every new stable version has to be built for each supported Ubuntu release − 16.04, 18.04, 19.04, and the upcoming 19.10 − and for all supported architectures (amd64, i386, arm, arm64).

Additionally, ensuring Chromium even builds (let alone runs) on older releases such as 16.04 can be challenging, as the upstream project often uses new compiler features that are not available on older releases. 

In contrast, a Snap needs to be built only once per architecture and will run on all systems that support Snapd. This covers all supported Ubuntu releases including 14.04 with Extended Security Maintenance (ESM), as well as other distributions like Debian, Fedora, Mint, and Manjaro.'

That's all well and good, but Lefebvre disliked enormously that:

In the Ubuntu 20.04 package base, the Chromium package is indeed empty and acting, without your consent, as a backdoor by connecting your computer to the Ubuntu Store. Applications in this store cannot be patched or pinned. You can't audit them, hold them, modify them, or even point Snap to a different store. You've as much empowerment with this as if you were using proprietary software, i.e. none. This is in effect similar to a commercial proprietary solution, but with two major differences: It runs as root, and it installs itself without asking you.

So, on June 1, 2020, Mint cut Snap, and the Snap-based Chromium out of their Linux distro. Now, though, Chromium's back. 

Lefebvre wrote, "The Chromium browser is now available in the official repositories for both Linux Mint and LMDE. If you've been waiting for this I'd like to thank you for your patience."

Part of the reason was, well, Canonical was right. Building Chromium from source code is one really slow process. He explained, "To guarantee reactivity and timely updates we had to automate the process of detecting, packaging and compiling new versions of Chromium. This is an application which can require more than 6 hours per build on a fast computer. We allocated a new build server with high specifications (Ryzen 9 3900, 128GB RAM, NMVe) and reduced the time it took to build Chromium to a little more than an hour." That's a lot of power! 

Still, for those who love it, up-to-date builds of Chromium are now available for Mint users.

Lefebvre has always started work on an IPTV player. This is a program you can use to watch video streams from streaming services such as Mobdro, Pluto TV, and Locast. Mint already supports such open-source IPTV players as Kodi, but as Lefebvre noted, there's a "lack of good IPTV solutions on the Linux desktop but we're not sure how many people actually do use it." So, Lefebvre has built an alpha prototype, Hypnotix. If there's sufficient interest, there may eventually be an official Mint Hypnotix IPTV player, but that's a long way off from here.

Much closer are some speed and compatibility tune-ups to the Cinnamon interface. Another nice, new feature, the ability to add favorites to its Nemo file manager, has also been added.

So it is that Mint keeps improving, which is one of the big reasons I keep using it year after year.

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