Linux Mint's Cinnamon: A GNOME 3.x shell fork

GNOME 3.2 keeps losing fans so leading Linux desktop distribution Mint turns its attention to forking the GNOME shell into a GNOME 2.x like desktop: Cinnamon.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Cinnamon: Linux Mint s new GNOME-based Linux desktop interface.

Cinnamon: Linux Mint's new GNOME-based Linux desktop interface.

GNOME is continuing to lose users and supporters. Its developers can say what they will about this Linux desktop's advantages, most people, including Linus Torvalds himself, dislike the new GNOME 3.x interface. Many Linux users, like myself, simply find GNOME 3.x to be far more trouble than it's worth. Now, Clement “Clem” Lefebvre, leader of the popular Linux Mint distribution has also had enough of GNOME 3.x and is creating a more user friendly GNOME shell: Cinnamon.

As Lefebvre explained, "I'm not going to argue whether Gnome Shell is a good or a bad desktop. It's just not what we're looking for. The user experience the Gnome team is trying to create isn't the one we're interested in providing to our users. There are core features and components we absolutely need, and because they're not there in Gnome Shell, we had to add them using extensions with MGSE [Linux Mint Shell Extensions for Gnome 3]."

MGSE is not enough though. Lefebvre continued, "The extension system in Gnome Shell is handy but core parts of a desktop need to be able to communicate with each others and be integrated properly. The Gnome development team is not interested in the features we implemented, it's opposed to adding them to Gnome Shell, and it doesn't share our vision of a desktop. In other words, our work on Gnome 3 does not influence the development of Gnome Shell, Gnome Shell isn't going in a direction that is suitable for us, and we're not interested in shipping Gnome Shell 'as is,' or in continuing with multiple hacks and extensions."

Mint hasn't had an easy road of it. In an attempt to please everyone tried to provide users with pure GNOME 3.2, MATE and GNOME 3.2 with the MGSE extensions. Fully supporting three different desktops wouldn't be easy for any company, never mind a community Linux distribution like Mint.

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So it is that Cinnamon, currently an alpha program under the GPLv2, is being worked on by the Mint developers to eventually become one of Mint's main Linux desktop interface choices. Cinnamon is not though, like the MATE project, a GNOME 2.x fork that seeks to walk away from GNOME 3.x's core. Instead, Cinnamon as, Lefebvre states in the Cinnamon project README file:

Cinnamon provides core user interface functions for the GNOME 3 desktop … The desktop layout is similar to Gnome 2. The underlying technology is forked from Gnome Shell. The emphasis is put on making users feel at home and providing them with an easy to use and comfortable desktop experience.

Speaking specifically about MATE, Lefebvre stated, "MATE is different. It just needs time to mature but it provides what most of our Gnome 2 users want. We're currently working on releasing version 1.2.0 (which unstable release is in testing at the moment). I personally have high hopes for MATE and whatever we do with Cinnamon, it's comforting people still have the choice to run what is now coming really close to what Gnome 2 was."

Lefebvre is hedging his, and the Linux desktop community's bets, by simultaneously pushing forward with Cinnamon. He explained, Cinnamon "starts with a stable fork of Gnome Shell 3.2.1 and the features present in MGSE. It works well and it's already a better implementation of what we want from a desktop than Gnome Shell and MGSE. Its aim isn't to reproduce exactly Gnome 2, like MATE does, but to innovate and do something new..."

Lefebvre continued, "By new, I don't mean new paradigms. There's a new generation of desktops out there, including Gnome Shell and Unity. These desktops are shiny, they look good and they're slowly gaining popularity. They're based on new and exciting technologies but they also come with a cost... they're re-inventing the way we use our computer. It's neither right or wrong of course, but it will only appeal to a certain category of users.. and there are a lot of people out there, myself included, who aren't convinced the traditional desktops were bad and who are concerned about not having a choice as more and more people switch towards these new technologies."

In other words, Cinnamon, like Ubuntu's Unity, use GNOME 3.x' under the hood technology but it provides users with an entirely different desktop interface. Unlike Unity though, which took its own unique tablet-like take on the desktop, Cinnamon is an attempt to recreate the popular GNOME 2.x style desktop with a GNOME 3.x engine.

He concluded, "If I had to summarize all of this, I'd simply tell you: We pick the best components for our releases, but if we don't find what we're looking for, we get involved. Gnome Shell isn't what we want and we can't change it to our liking. The one thing we want for Linux Mint 13 is a desktop people can use and say 'this is better than Gnome 2.' It's ambitious, we made the first steps with MGSE, but more work is needed and we won't achieve this goal simply by writing extensions."

No, Mint will only do it by creating its own GNOME 2.x style interface. I wish them luck with this project. I've pretty much given up on GNOME 3.x becoming a viable desktop for me and while I like the idea of MATE, I'm not sure it will have broad enough support to become a viable, long-term choice. Cinnamon, by building on the foundation of GNOME 3.2, could well be the desktop that I and other GNOME 2.x fans have been waiting for. I hope so. I really do.

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