CREATING A WEB-CENTRIC LINUX DISTRIBUTION that's not just another Ubuntu-based operating system (OS) has vexed Kendall Weaver since working as a maintainer on Linux Mint Fluxbox and LXDE 8.
"After some serious thought and some serious investigation, [I found that] a market exists in between the more traditional desktop operating systems and the newer 'cloud-based' operating systems," Weaver said.
Kendall Weaver is the lead developer of Peppermint Linux, a free software OS based on Ubuntu and Weaver's work on Linux Mint. He was struck by the divide between bloatware desktops and lighter cloud-based OSs that weren't offering the format he was looking for.
"Upon doing some research we didn't find anything that we felt offered a good mix of the cloud and the more traditional desktop so we made the decision to create Peppermint in order to fill that gap," he explained.
Weaver, pictured left, was working with Shane Remington on Linux Mint Fluxbox by night and both have day jobs as developers at Astral IX Media in the US.
The work they did on Linux Mint LXDE was a good testing ground. But it was designed from the ground up to offer the most complete Linux desktop experience available, online or offline.
While Mint fulfilled a need and Weaver took some of its tool-sets for Peppermint, it wasn't where he wanted go for his next project. "That and I had some free time," he refreshingly told us.
Weaver started working with the initial concept in January 2010. He downloaded and tested around 100 different distros, looking for ideas. He claimed that notable standouts were Arch in the speed department, Sidux regarding its look and feel, and, naturally, Linux Mint. However, he already knew the definite direction he wanted development to take.
"Once we really knew what we were doing I had the private beta ready in about three weeks. The beta lasted for another three weeks before we declared it stable and made the public release."
His direction was a chance to build a fast, stable, and cloud-centric modern operating system. Weaver took Remington, pictured left, along for the ride to help work on Peppermint.
"Our philosophy revolves around creating a fast and stable web portal, but without sacrificing the form and function of a more traditional desktop operating system."
"We're giving people web applications integrated with their desktop; we're not integrating their desktop into the web."
But Weaver insisted that Peppermint is not a web-based OS and is, rather, a web-centric OS. Is this just semantic gymnastics?
"Peppermint is not a 'web-based OS' so much as it is a web-centric OS, or a 'hybrid' as we've taken to calling it. At this point a lot of people are interested in the cloud but not really committed to it in a way that would get them to give up a more traditional desktop."
If Peppermint isn't web-based, then it's certainly not cloud-based either. If it was, that would put it on a level playing field with other touted web or cloud-based operating systems like Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR), Google's Chrome OS, Jolicloud and Intel's Moblin. Aren't these already offering Linux distros in the cloud? Again, Weaver was adamant.
"Whereas Chrome OS and Moblin are very much 'cloud operating systems', we've created a 'cloud-centric' desktop operating system."
"What needs to be noted is that we're not trying to compete with other distros in the cloud or netbook segment, and Peppermint isn't a distro just for netbooks. I reiterate, we're not really shooting for the same target."
It turned out that he had actually done extensive testing with both Ubuntu For Notebooks (UNR) and Jolicloud when looking for ideas. The problem that hit him was that they're both Gnome based and "kind of heavy". He found the default user interface to be unnecessarily convoluted.
"When I tested them on netbooks they were nowhere close to being as snappy and 'to the point' as was Lubuntu. I have no qualms with Gnome, but it's simply not the best option when dealing with limited hardware specs."
Weaver also said he liked working with Jolicloud but thought it wasn't fast enough over extended periods of time or user friendly enough.
However, Weaver's overriding point is that Peppermint is on the same team as Jolicloud, Chrome and Moblin. "We're all 'Linux' and to me that is more important than how we go about doing so."
The team opted for Ubuntu because most Linux software is written for or ported to it. Weaver also said Ubuntu has huge package repositories and uses apt for package management.
"Basically Ubuntu has an extremely good infrastructure for other distributions to work with and build off of. A lot of people don't like the direction that Ubuntu is going with their interpretation of how desktop Linux should be, but when building an Ubuntu based distro I don't have to make all of their decisions over again."
"The fact that they give us their tools and resources to freely use is a good enough reason for me."
Using Ubuntu as the core architecture, Weaver then had to develop Peppermint with some of the tools from Linux Mint. Weaver said that Peppermint uses some tools directly from Linux Mint and "lower level stuff" expanded from Linux Mint.
It's also a fork of Lubuntu Alpha 3, which is an i386 Ubuntu variation using a Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE). LXDE is a minimal desktop environment, designed to better integrate web and desktop applications.
"Peppermint uses LXDE as the default desktop environment. LXDE is easily the most modular environment currently available and the exceedingly low install footprint and system resource requirements made it a natural fit."
"It's also relatively easy to configure, highly customisable, and pretty good looking. LXDE uses Openbox as a window manager and has an available Openbox session for those wanting something a little edgier than the full LXDE desktop," Weaver continued.
Peppermint's biggest claim to fame is integrating its idea in to a manageable hub called Mozilla Prism. This creates a framework of single site browsers for web-apps, giving them better desktop integration. This means that there are no local applications installed therefore Peppermint doesn't require a big install and is much faster to run.
"Peppermint integrates Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Reader, and locally installed pdf viewer for the mail and office applications. We really didn't see any need to have most of this locally installed except for the pdf viewer and only it because it's so small and fast," Weaver said.
To prove the point, the default applications are all web-based - Drop-Box, Exaile Music Management, Prism, X-Chat (an IRC Client) and a torrent client called Transmission.
"For images we included a lightweight image viewer that works particularly well and for an editor we integrated the pixlr web app as it's well featured and really easy to use. The default music player is Exaile, and Gnome-Mplayer is installed by default for watching videos," Weaver explained.
"Hulu, Youtube, Pandora, Last.fm, and The Cloud Player are also integrated into the menu for people who use those services. Some of them aren't available outside the US, but they're easy to remove."
Using Mozilla Prism and LXDE, the team wanted to create a fun user experience anyone could pick up. In fact, Weaver said his goal wasn't to aim for any particular target.
"We never decided that we were going to target new users, or experienced users, or kids, or Martians, or people with beards, or anything. We decided that we wanted Peppermint to be accessible, usable, and as fulfilling as possible to everyone who picks it up."
After much deliberation, the team chose Firefox for the default browser. In testing, it proved to be consistently more stable than any other browser. It also wasn't the fastest but Weaver's final decision was to forgo a little speed in favour of stability.
Given how quickly Peppermint was designed to operate, losing a little speed on Firefox was a small issue. It only takes 4GB of hard drive space to install and Weaver claimed it can run on 192MB of memory. This review actually clocked Peppermint using just 82Mb of system memory. Weaver said it wasn't hard to achieve this.
"It actually wasn't hard at all. We were stingy about startup processes, stingy about background processes, and used low resource versions of what we could in order to achieve this.
"On my laptop, a System76 Darter Ultra with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo and 4GB of DDR2 RAM, it boots from GRUB to the login manager in about 7 seconds. If I enable automatic login, I can go from completely powered off to the full desktop in under 20 seconds. Excellent results have been achieved with significantly older hardware as well."
If Peppermint is a success, and so far it has received unanimously positive critical appraisal, then Weaver would like to see other cloud-centric Linux distros follow suit with collaboration as the key word.
"Every new project gives everyone a new point of reference, some new ideas, and some new inspiration. Collaboration with other projects is most certainly a good thing and I'm looking forward to what comes out other people's decision to collaborate with us."
For Peppermint itself, coming out of beta into a public release is really only the start. Once available for public consumption, there are constant updates Weaver's team needs to maintain.
"We have a couple of new releases, including a 64-bit release that we're working hard on at the moment. In addition, Peppermint is updated at least once a month to reflect current package updates, bug fixes, and application changes in order to provide a constantly improving system," he said.
"We have a few surprises up our sleeves as well, so be sure to stay tuned."
No sooner did Weaver sign off then Remington came back to give The INQUIRER a UK exclusive on the team's work.
"In the near future we'll be releasing Peppermint Ice. It will feature Chromium as the default browser and will likely be even more cloud focused," Remington predicted.
"Once we launch Peppermint Ice we will be working towards bringing integration with Google Cloud Print as the next logical step in development for Ice and all other Peppermint versions."
Remington said the team is finding large groups of people who were experimenting with the combination of Peppermint and Chromium and getting great results.
"We listened to these skilled users of ours on the forum, picked their brains a little, and now we can offer Peppermint Ice as a crowd sourced or 'cloud sourced' product. Testing started this week and we plan on launching it very soon. All we can say is that Peppermint is fast.
"Peppermint Ice is stupid fast." µ