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By far the biggest Ubuntu spin-off of all is Linux Mint, which is already attracting emigrants from Ubuntu – earlier this year, for the first time, Mint got more page views than its progenitor on Distrowatch. Although it also offers its own KDE, Xfce and LXDE-based flavours, the mainline Mint favours GNOME 2 – although it rearranges GNOME's two panels into a more Windows-XP-like one. Mint also adds in multimedia codecs, Flash, Java, DVD playback support and other common proprietary additions as standard for a smoother experience.

It also increasingly diverges from Ubuntu's choice of components, for instance retaining the Pidgin chat client that Ubuntu replaced with Empathy as of 9.10. Interestingly, the latest Ubuntu has movied to Mint's preferred Mozilla Thunderbird as its email client, rather than the Outlook-like Evolution.

But of course, Mint too faces moving on from GNOME 2. Mint 13, which should be out this November, will be based on a customised version of GNOME 3.2, but not Fallback Mode. As its maintainer, Clem Lefebvre, says:

"Gnome Fallback Mode is basically an adaptation of gnome-panel, which looks like Gnome 2 but is based on GTK3 and is incompatible with Bonobo and panel applets.

"So the first thing to consider is this: Panel applets need a rewrite to work in Gnome Fallback Mode. MintMenu, for instance, works in Gnome 2, but it doesn’t work in Gnome Fallback or in Gnome Shell. We can make it work in Gnome Fallback and we can make it work in Gnome Shell, but we then need a rewrite.

"The second thing to consider is that Gnome Fallback isn’t here to stay. The Gnome devs don’t want it there and people who like Gnome 2 don’t like it anyway. Eventually you’ll see Gnome Shell gain compatibility with less powerful graphics card and Shell will be the only way to run Gnome 3. It’s not a bad thing, since Gnome Fallback Mode, from a usability point of view, really isn’t an interesting desktop. So going forward, we’ve got Gnome3/GTK3 being actively developed and improved, we’ve got Gnome2/GTK still there for us to use but not gaining new features, and we’ve got something called Gnome Fallback Mode which is just that, a 2D fallback mode, and which is going to disappear."

The issues facing Mint are a microcosm of those facing Ubuntu in general. Even if it wasn't Ubuntu's fault that GNOME 2 is dead and gone, it was Ubuntu's problem – and that of every other GNOME-based distro. Everyone else seems to be just going with GNOME 3 and hoping that, like KDE 4 did, it overcomes its initial teething troubles.

The future for Ubuntu has never looked less certain. Although the simple, colourful Unity desktop appeals to novice Linux users, it's alienating existing users. Although Shuttleworth himself says that the Unity shell is perfectly suitable for power users, many are unhappy at having to relearn a new desktop when they were happy with the old one. Even if they desert to remixes such Xubuntu, these depend for their existence on their upstream distribution – Ubuntu itself. Less-technical users might find Mint inviting, while the more adept could go to Debian, which offers a wealth of alternative desktops. Indeed, Mint itself has a still-experimental version based directly off Debian, which bears the warning: "Debian is a less user-friendly/desktop-ready base than Ubuntu. Expect some rough edges."

Ubuntu is gambling that Unity will attract floods of new Linux users in such numbers as to outweigh those abandoning it for its spin-offs and rivals. If it's correct, then Ubuntu will continue its rise to near-total dominance of the Linux desktop. But if it's wrong, it will leave the Linux world more fragmented than ever. ®

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