The Ubuntu MATE backstory

MATE is a fork of GNOME 2

Although Ubuntu MATE technically began with Martin Wimpress and Alan Pope’s sitting around the latter’s kitchen table, it first started years earlier, with Martin’s quest to restore ‘wedded bliss’ to his home and his wife’s desktop environment.

At that time, Martin was an Arch developer (disclaimer: we were required to say that), and he and his wife were mostly happy using an “embryonic” GNOME 3. A few years after the birth of their first child, Martin’s wife came back to a more fully fledged GNOME 3, and gave her husband a directive: make GNOME 2 come back.

Martin knew the MATE Desktop, a continuation of GNOME 2, existed, but had never actually used it before. He installed MATE on the household computers and all was again well, but he noticed a few issues beneath the surface. Knowing a happy wife equaled a happy life, Martin did what any Linux-using husband would do: he began contributing to the MATE Desktop. At first, this was low-key, mostly packaging for Arch, but then he began to make patches and fixes upstream. He also began installing the MATE Desktop for family members who weren’t as technically proficient, who mainly wanted ease of use and continuity.

As Martin became more involved with the MATE Desktop, he also became more involved in the world of Linux podcasting. He became an occasional talking head on Linux Unplugged, which nicely dovetailed with his new role as a community manager for the MATE Desktop. This meant he started doing more interviews, one of which was on the Ubuntu Podcast in 2012 or 2013. During the interview Martin pointed out how MATE was rather broken in Ubuntu, which saddened Alan Pope, one of the shows’ hosts, for anyone unfamiliar with the podcast. He’s still there, along with Mark Johnson and…gasp!…Martin.


Popey and Wimpress

Selfie photo of Wimpress and Popey

A few weeks later, Martin got an e-mail from Alan with a one-word subject line: “Hah!” In the e-mail, Alan gave a link to matey.iso, the forebearer of Ubuntu MATE. By this point, Martin’s family were growing frustrated with their desktop experience, and Martin found himself spending breaks managing their frustrations. They had stopped using the laptops Martin had provided, which were running the MATE Desktop on Arch (tricky to maintain from afar), and there were even rumors of switching to MacBooks. Quelle horreur!

Alan’s e-mail, therefore, couldn’t have come at a better time. Martin knew Ubuntu’s reliability would make “a sensible way forward.” Alan and Martin took a day off work, and Martin made the brief drive to Alan’s house. They sat in Alan’s kitchen and put together the very first version of Ubuntu MATE. Once they were done, as Martin recalls, Alan “kind of looked at me square in the eye and said ‘you’re responsible for this now. I’m out.’”


Ubuntu MATE becomes an official flavour

Ubuntu MATE joins the Ubuntu family

Ubuntu MATE 14.10 was the inaugural release, and it didn’t take long for wider adoption to follow. With the release of 15.04, Ubuntu MATE was now an official Ubuntu community flavour. In 2015, Entroware announced it would offer Ubuntu MATE as a pre-install choice to its customers - the first example of an OEM supporting a boutique independent distribution. Incidentally, this made Martin’s job as family IT support much easier, as he could simply point curious relatives to buy a laptop with the operating system he “basically designed for them pre-installed.”


Introducing Software Boutique

Software Boutique logo - a coat hanger

The next release, however, involved a news-making controversy: the removal of the Ubuntu Software Center as a default, in favor of a highly curated Software Boutique inside the new Ubuntu MATE Welcome. This sparked headlines across the Internet, even as many users admitted the Ubuntu Software Center was buggy and slow. The replacement, however, was popular with users - VERY popular with Chris Fisher from JB.


The First Official LTS

Canonical granted LTS status to Ubuntu MATE 16.04, its first official long-term support version. Canonical also upgraded Martin to an employee on the Desktop Team in time for the 16.10 release.


Ending the PowerPC Era

Prior to 2006, Power PCs were popular in Macs, before Apple switched to Intel processors. Ubuntu MATE initially provided support for these older machines, even buying a few secondhand specifically for development and testing. However, supporting this older architecture became increasingly difficult, and 16.04.01 was the last build, with Long Term Support ending in April 2019.


Ending the i386 Era

In a post to the Ubuntu MATE Community, Martin explained that Ubuntu MATE would no longer provide i386 (32-bit Intel) images, although they could continue to carry i386 packages in the repository. Although this was an unpopular decision with users still running i386 architecture, this decision was in line with several application and driver vendors, including nvidia and Mozilla, who had previously dropped their own support for the older platform.

20.04 and beyond

Towards a Retrospective Future

Laptop running Ubuntu MATE

The rest of Ubuntu MATE’s history has yet to be written! The roadmap explains where the project will hopefully be in the years to come. If you want to be a part of that history to come, head over to our Get Involved page.

Many thanks to InfinitelyGalactic for his interview with Martin, which provided much of the backstory and can be viewed here.