Appimages, Snaps, XDG-Apps^WFlatpaks

Lots of excitement… When Canonical announced that their snaps work on a number of other Linux distributions, the reactions were predictable, sort of amusing and missing the point.

In the end, all this going back and forth, these are just turf wars. There are Redhat/Fedora people scared and horrified that Canonical/Ubuntu might actually set a standard for once, there are probably Canonical/Ubuntu people scared that their might not set a standard (though after several days of this netstorm, I haven’t seen anything negative from their side, there are traditional packagers worried that the world may change and that they lose their “curating” position.

And there’s me scared that I’ll have to maintain debs, rpms, flatpaks, snaps, appimages, OSX bundles, MSI installers, NSIS installers and portable zips. My perspective is a bit that of an outsider, I don’t care about the politics, though I do wish that it isn’t a dead certainty that we’ll end up having both flatpaks (horrible name, by the way) and snaps in the Linux world.

Both the Canonical and the Fedora side claim to be working with the community, and, certainly, I was approached about snap and helped make a Krita snap. Which is a big win, both for me and for snap. But both projects ignore the appimage project, which is a real community effort, without corporate involvement. Probably because there is no way for companies to use appimage to create a lock-in effort or chance monetization, it’ll always be a community project, ignored by the big Linux companies.

Here’s my take, speaking a someone who is actually releasing software to end users using some of these new-fangled systems.

The old rpm/deb way of packaging is excellent for creating the base system. For software where having the latest version doesn’t matter that much for productivity. It’s a system that’s been used for about twenty years and served us reasonably well. But if you are developing software for end users that is regularly updated, where the latest version is important because it always has improvements that let the users do more work, it’s a problem. It’s a ghastly drag having to actually make the packages if you’re not part of a distribution, and having to make packages for several distributions is not feasible for a small team. And if we don’t, then when there are distributions that do not backport new versions to old releases because they only backport bugfixes, not releases, users lose out.

Snap turns out to be pretty easy to make, and pretty easy to upload to Ubuntu’s app store, and pretty easy to find once it’s there, seeing that there were already more than a thousand downloads after a few days. I don’t care about the security technology, that’s just not relevant for Krita. If you use Krita, you want it to access your files. It takes about five minutes to make a new snap and upload it — pretty good going. I was amazed and pleased that the snap now runs on a number of other distributions, and if Canonical/Ubuntu follows up on that, plugs the holes and fixes the bugs, it’ll be a big plus. Snap also offers all kinds of flexibility, like adding a patched Qt, that I haven’t even tried yet. I also haven’t checked how to add translations yet, but that’s also because the system we use to release translations for Krita needs changing, and I want to do that first.

I haven’t got any experience with flatpak. I know there was a start on making a Krita flatpak, but I haven’t seen any results. I think that the whole idea of a runtime, which is a dependency thing, is dumb, though. Sure, it’ll save some disk space, but at the cost of added complexity. I don’t want that. For flatpak, I’ll strike a wait-and-see attitude: I don’t see the need for it, but if it materializes, and takes as little of my time as snap, I might make them. Unless I need to install Fedora for it, because that’s one Linux distribution that just doesn’t agree with me.

Appimages, finally, are totally amazing, because they run everywhere. They don’t need any kind of runtime or installation. Creating the initial AppImage recipe took a lot of time and testing, mainly because of the run-everywhere requirement. That means fiddly work trying to figure out which low-level libraries need to be included to make OpenGL work, and which don’t. There might be bumps ahead, for instance if we want to start using OpenCL — or so I was told in a comment on LWN. I don’t know yet. Integration with the desktop environment is something Simon is working on, by installing a .desktop file in the user’s home directory. Sandboxing is also being worked on, using some of the same technology as flatpak, apparently. Automatic updates is also something that is becoming possible. I haven’t had time to investigate those things yet, because of release pressures, kickstarter pressures and all that sort of thing. One possible negative about appimages is that users have a hard time understanding them — they just cannot believe that download, make executable, go is all there’s to it. So much so that I’ve considered making a tar.xz with an executable appimage inside so users are in a more familiar territory. Maybe even change the extension from .appimage to .exe?

Anyway, when it comes to actually releasing software to end users in a way that doesn’t drive me crazy, I love AppImages, I like snap, I hate debs, rpms, repositories, ppa’s and their ilk and flatpak has managed to remain a big unknown. If we could get a third format to replace all the existing formats, say flatsnapimage, wouldn’t that be lovely?

Wouldn’t it?