Parallel to that, I had been reviewing distributions for a while and tinkering with a lot of things so I had good knowledge of how they worked and what I liked or didn't really like in each one of them. At some stage I got something out and I wrote a bit about it on linuxmint.com. I was surprised by the feedback I got and a few months later it was clear people were more interested in that little project than in my articles.
There was no plan to create a new distribution initially, and certainly not one that could rival the likes of Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS or even the established Linux distributions. People showed interest in what I was doing and so I responded to that.
Ubuntu was never "forked". It was and still is used as a package base and regarded as an upstream component. Why Ubuntu? Because it was (and still is) the best package base.
What were the original goals that you set for the initial version of Linux Mint and did you achieve them all? And what would you have changed about it if you were given the chance to do so?
The first version had no goals at all. It was something I experimented with. After that, feedback shaped versions 2.0, 2.1 and 2.2. It's only after Linux Mint 2.2 "Bianca" that things got serious.
The biggest goal for me is to make sure each release is the best release to date. It might sound funny but it's not always easy to achieve. Things move fast upstream, technologies change. My main concern is to continue to provide to people what they like and to get closer to a better desktop, to make it easier and more pleasant to use, each time.
What makes Linux Mint different compared to Ubuntu or Debian beyond the visual changes?
I'm not really sure. It never "had" to be different. We're already radically different in the way we work, in what we think is or isn't important, in the vision of the desktop we have, in how we look at security and package updates... so with all that we've often evolved in opposite directions. Now, from a technical point of view, if you look at Linux Mint, it is either using an Ubuntu or a Debian package base, so beyond the desktop layer (where we're primarily focused) you'll find very few differences.
To a certain extent, and despite a fork of their package base, it's also the case between Ubuntu and Debian. We're talking about the same base but the two distributions are very different, primarily because they're focused on very different things. Ubuntu patches the desktop and user applications layers heavily and at times they introduce significant differences in the core of the OS (locales, Upstart for instance...).
Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint evolve according to their own vision and consider upstream components as ways to achieve that vision, which means things don't have to be different but changes can be introduced when needed. In the case of Linux Mint, we try not to introduce incompatibilities with upstream package bases, so we keep the same libraries, same versions and we do not fork the base.
In recent years, Linux Mint -- currently ranked higher on Distrowatch.com than the distribution it is based on -- has steadily increased in popularity among both beginners and expert Linux users. How has this constant influx of new users changed the direction of the project, if at all, and what problems have you encountered because of its quick user-base growth?
The biggest issue is to scale. Some aspects such as hosting are easy to solve (you just throw more money and resources at it), others such as the quality of the communication between the team and the community are much more problematic. Thankfully Linux Mint has always been growing, so this isn't new. We might be X times the project we were back in 2006, but we've always had to scale so we learnt a lot and we continue to learn from it as we grow larger.