Within the last five years, tech giants Facebook, Google and Apple have set up satellite centers in Western North Carolina. What other types of tech companies are here and what made their owners choose the area? In the coming weeks, our local economy section will profile local tech startups. First up — Peppermint OS, based in Hendersonville.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one — two guys walk into a bar in downtown Hendersonville, bond over a mutual affection of Linux open-source operating systems and decide to create a free desktop system themselves. That idea, which eventually became Peppermint OS, has now racked up more than 40 million downloads across 140 countries.
If there’s a punch line here, it’s that Peppermint OS co-founders Kendall Weaver, 29, and Shane Remington, 44, have managed to turn the stereotype of retirement-haven Hendersonville on its head.
“We talked about it for hours,” says Remington of their first meeting in January 2010 at the Black Rose Pub, a place where they still conduct frequent brainstorming and beer-swilling sessions.
Weaver adds: “After several beers, we decided to go for it. Shane went home that night and bought several domain names.”
Three months later, the duo launched a beta version of Peppermint, then a full release that summer. Soon, they were being written up in popular tech outlets like Geek.com, Lifehacker and ReadWrite.com.
“We knew we were onto something special when we first did it. But we had absolutely no idea it was going to go gangbusters like that,” Remington says of their success.
This year, in mid-June, the pair launched the latest — Peppermint 4. So far, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Remington says. Each update has garnered double the number of downloads as the predecessor, he reports. As far as day-to-day users go, metrics are harder to gauge, but Remington estimates Peppermint has between 8 and 10 million active users.
So what exactly is Peppermint OS? “We’re a hybrid operating system that uses desktop and cloud,” explains Remington.
For the non-tech-savvy, an operating system, or OS, is simply a desktop environment with a piece of software called a kernel that allows users to interact with their computers — such as creating a document, surfing the Web or playing Tetris all day. Apple users are familiar with Mac OS and PC users know Windows. Linux has a multitude of operating systems as well, but one of the most popular is Linux Mint. It’s also free, which means if you have a PC, you can install it and replace whatever OS came preloaded. (Macintosh users have to set up a virtual machine.) The two programmers based their concept on desktop systems Ubuntu and Linux Mint.
“So we wanted something kinda like Mint but spicier. That was our namesake and how we came up with Peppermint,” explains Weaver. “What makes Peppermint unique is we were the first operating system to come in, primarily, with an emphasis on both the desktop and Web applications at the same time.”
“It was really designed for mobility, speed and efficiency,” Remington adds. Peppermint “offers an interface that makes it easy for crossover — for people to move easily over from Windows or Mac. There’s been this stigma around Linux that it’s very hard to use and understand, but we wanted to present it in a way that was very familiar. So you really can just pick it up and go.”
The system itself is lightweight and fast. The perk is that rather than just a cloud-based system like Google’s Chrome OS, where all data is stored online, Peppermint gives the option of installing programs to the desktop. The OS also offers software bundles, or metapackages, geared toward user interest. Say you’re into photography: you can choose to install a bundle of free and open-source photo-editing software with just a few clicks. For Peppermint, customization and speed are key. The target demographic, says Weaver, is “all human beings between the ages of zero and 200.”
Remington and Weaver both have 9-to-5 jobs in IT. (Weaver, it should be noted, also holds the No. 1 Minesweeper record in North Carolina, though he had to retire after getting carpal tunnel in his right hand from playing too much.) They work on Peppermint in their sleep, on the weekend and during lunch breaks, according to Remington. He says they make some revenue off merchandise, ads and donations, but the project is mostly a labor of love and a way to give back to the open-source community.
Peppermint relies on a core group of volunteers from across the globe to help with different coding and design elements. Weaver says he wanted to give back because “the open-source community has provided the software I’ve used for the entirety of my adult life.”
Silicon Valley of the East Coast
Why would two tech-minded people choose WNC to live, work and play? Remington, an avid vinyl record collector, was born in California but raised up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Weaver is a native and says he was gone just long enough to realize how much he missed it. Both think WNC has the potential to be the new cradle of technology.
“What I think is special about here is that it’s recognized in American tech as a great place to be for production and data storage,” says Remington. “We have a huge thriving tech community. Just in the Asheville area, I think it’s not just going to be Beer City USA, but the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.”
Weaver adds that the sense of community also helps make the area special: “I’ve never gone to a bar with a bunch of tech people and had a bad conversation.”
The duo is mum on future plans, though, except to say there will be a Peppermint 5 upgrade next year. They also hint at a project involving unspecified “cloud-based services.”
For Peppermint, as long as the beer taps are open, the fresh ideas keep flowing. So, too, it seems, does success.
For more information on their operating system, visit PeppermintOS.com or contact @PeppermintOS on Twitter.
— Julia Ritchey can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 122, or firstname.lastname@example.org.