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Linux Mint 20.3 appears – now with more Mozilla flavor: Why this distro switched Firefox defaults back to Google

Oh, Snap

The Linux Mint distro has been busy. Not only has it pushed out release 20.3, it's also announced a deal with Mozilla, meaning vanilla Mozilla versions of Firefox and Thunderbird.

It's very hard to estimate the relative popularity of Linux distributions. Aside from a couple of paid enterprise distros, they're all free downloads without serial numbers, activation nor any other tracking mechanisms. One of the only mechanisms is the Distrowatch popularity page, although vendors dispute its accuracy.

Saying that, Mint is in third or fourth place, outranking its own upstream distro, Ubuntu, which comes sixth. Each major version of Mint is based upon the long-term support version of Ubuntu: Mint 20 is based on Ubuntu 20.04.

Like most Linux distros, Mint offers Firefox as its default browser – and Mozilla’s email client, Thunderbird. The Mint team had built these apps itself, based on changes it inherited from its parent distro, Ubuntu. Now, Mint is switching away from Ubuntu’s versions of Firefox and Thunderbird to Mozilla’s versions – skipping an intermediary.

It seems likely that at least one underlying reason for this is that Ubuntu has switched to packaging Firefox as a Snap. Mint has dropped Snap support since version 20. The next version of Ubuntu, 22.04, will be an LTS release, so it will be the basis of the next major release of Mint.

No Snap support means the end of using the upstream Firefox build.

There won't be that much difference to users: Ubuntu and Mint made only small changes to the Mozilla applications. For instance, the apps display a notification to restart them if the OS has updated them in the background; they search for plugins in the distro's software repositories; and they add messages about the OS version to the Help:About dialog boxes.

Another issue is that, as well as the aforementioned tweaks, Mint had changed the Firefox start page and default web search engine from Mozilla's defaults to Mint's own choices – think Yahoo! and DuckDuckGo – that brought in revenue for the distro project.

Moz really doesn't like it when someone take its browser, modifies it, and ships it using its Firefox trademark and logo without some kind of agreement or understanding in place.

Now Mint has seemingly signed such a pact, framing it as a commercial and technical partnership with Mozilla. As part of this, Mint can continue using the Firefox name, and the distro will revert its Firefox start page and default search engine to Mozilla's choices. That means using Google as the default for Firefox; Google pays Mozilla to be the default web search engine in Firefox.

Linux Mint founder Clem Lefebvre indicated on the distro's blog that this partnership may funnel money from Google to Mint via Mozilla. "We'll lose revenue from Yahoo and DuckDuckGo but we’ll get revenue from Google," he wrote.

"Without the partnership we would have had to stop using the Mozilla brand if we wanted to continue to monetize the traffic with our search partners," Lefebvre added. "I think people weren’t already keen with our customization, and I think losing the name 'Firefox' would have been detrimental to our project long-term."

Here's how the official announcement from Mint put it:

In the past Linux Mint used its own default settings and configured Firefox in a specific way. Most of this configuration is abandoned to go back to Mozilla defaults.

  • The default start page no longer points to
  • The default search engines no longer include Linux Mint search partners (Yahoo, DuckDuckGo…) but Mozilla search partners (Google, Amazon, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Ebay…)
  • The default configuration switches from Mint defaults to Mozilla defaults.
  • Firefox no longer includes code changes or patches from Linux Mint, Debian or Ubuntu.

With this partnership we also satisfy Mozilla’s requests when it comes to using their intellectual property (their name, brands and identity). For example, the Firefox icon is changing to follow Mozilla’s usage guidelines.

By the way, if you have disabled telemetry in Firefox, you should check to see if it's still off.

The other changes in this version of Mint are similarly modest, as befits what will almost certainly be the last point-release of Mint 20. There's a new dark mode, although it's not system-wide yet; rounded window corners, with bigger title bars and controls; and fewer colourful accents in window buttons, menus and the file manager's sidebar.

The code in the shell

Mint was an early adopter of the MATE desktop, as well as building its own desktop, Cinnamon – which originated as the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions, which made GNOME 3 more "traditional": taskbar, start menu, and so on. It also offers an edition with the lighter-weight Xfce desktop.

Recent versions of Xfce and MATE have both switched to Gtk3, and Cinnamon has always used it. In an attempt to reduce duplication of effort between the projects, especially the closely-related MATE (a fork of GNOME 2) and Cinnamon (a fork of GNOME 3), the Mint team develops the XApps suite – versions of the various accessory apps with traditional user interfaces: conventional title and menu bars, rather than GNOME's CSD.

This means that all three Mint editions inherit some common features in the new version, such as a search function in the sticky-notes app, an improved television-streaming app, an improved document viewer, and a new document manager (inspiringly named "Thingy").

Ever since Ubuntu fatefully consulted the Hacker News community as to its future direction – and then killed off its desktop environment and mobile OS – the company has focussed more on the bottom line.

As a result, the desktop edition sometimes feels a little neglected. Known bugs go unfixed; the hack has personally been bitten by one or two himself. Its orange-and-aubergine Yaru theme is a little garish, and soon will be the sole option.

Which is all to Mint's benefit. If you prefer a cooler, greyscale colour palette, conventional title and menu bars, a traditional Windows-like desktop with a taskbar and app-launcher menu, status icons, and so on – a less experimental and more conventional desktop experience – then Mint gives you that. In recent years, mainline Ubuntu mostly toes the GNOME line of gradual removal of "legacy" features.

Of course, there are several officially-sanctioned Ubuntu flavours with more traditional desktops, including both Xfce and MATE remixes. If you have multiple monitors with different dots-per-inch ratios, though, you'll probably need fractional display scaling.

That only leaves GNOME and KDE, or the as-yet unofficial Cinnamon remix. We found this even more garish than the normal Ubuntu, though, it has a rather outdated version of Cinnamon, and uses the irritating GNOME accessories with their combined-toolbar-cum-titlebars.

Mint 20.3 is the most usable, versatile, and feature-complete all-round Linux desktop experience you'll find: elegant design, traditional desktops, and a modern feature set. It includes the most useful drivers and codecs, including proprietary components such as Skype, and has native Flatpak support in place of Ubuntu's Snap.

We just hope that the new deal with Mozilla doesn't hurt its revenues, because the desktop Linux world needs a product that just does the job. Today, that remains Linux Mint. ®

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