Linux desktop leaders unite behind Flathub app store. Here's why

One reason why there are so many Linux desktops is that there's endless disagreement on what makes the best desktop. Now, GNOME and KDE are exploring the idea of uniting, using Flatpak to create a Linux desktop app store.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Woman using a desktop in office
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I've used one Linux desktop or the other for decades now. But, I'm a Unix and Linux expert. For most people who just want a desktop and its applications to just work -- thank you very much -- the hundreds of different Linux desktops and dozens of ways to accomplish similar goals are more annoying than enticing. 

One such problem is how you can find, install, and be certain any given program will work on your desktop. Now, leaders from the GNOME Foundation and KDE Foundation are solving that by building an app store on top of Flatpak, a universal Linux software deployment and package management program. 

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This idea of replacing traditional but not very friendly ways of delivering Linux desktop apps, such as DEB and RPM package management systems, has been around for a while. Besides being easier to use, Flatpak and its rivals, such as Appimage and Snaps, can also run on any Linux distribution. All the programs do this by containerizing applications with all their necessary libraries and associated files. 

This isn't the first time such an idea has been tried. For example, Linspire (Lindows) pioneered the "Click'n'Run" app store in the mid-2000s. 

More recently, Elementary OS has been experimenting with a "pay what you can" app store. But because it is specific to a handful or a single Linux distro, it was never that attractive to users or developers. 

Now, as laid out in former Google chairman Eric Schmidt's Plaintext Group, the proposal is to "Promote diversity and sustainability in the Linux desktop community by adding payments, donations, and subscriptions to the Flathub app store." 

Behind this idea are several Linux desktop leaders, such as GNOME president Robert McQueen; former GNOME executive director and Debian project leader Neil McGovern; and KDE president Aleix Pol. 

Flatpak, unlike the earlier store attempts, works on essentially all Linux distros. This makes it much more interesting.

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Why Flakpak, instead of its chief rival, Snaps? They explained, "Flathub is a vendor-neutral service for Linux application developers to build and publish their applications directly to their end users. A healthy application ecosystem is essential for the success of the open-source software desktop, so end-users can trust and control their data and development platforms on the device in front of them."

Canonical, Ubuntu and Snaps' parent company, isn't in the least bit fond of Flatpak, which originally sprang from Canonical rival Red Hat. Indeed, Canonical recently decided that neither Ubuntu, nor its variants, such as Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Ubuntu Studio, will support Flatpak. You'll still be able to add Flatpak to any of these distributions. You just won't have Flatpak built-in to the Ubuntu family.  

On the other hand, the Flatpak store supporters state, "Our largest 'competitor' in the Linux app store space is Canonical's Snap Store, which (aside from any debates as to the relative technical merits of Flatpaks versus Snaps) sits under the control of one corporate entity rather than a community-controlled nonprofit, requiring copyright assignments for contributions to both Snap and the Store, and effectively making it very hard or unappealing to run your own stores."

Alas, where would desktop Linux be without fusses over what software is the one true and right software? Probably a lot more successful than it is now. 

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Either approach makes it much easier for a software distributor to not only bundle their programs for any customer but to be able to sell them to people or businesses. 

Flatpak is taking the lead. Flathub now offers over 2,000 apps from over 1,500 GitHub collaborators. It's now averaging 700,000 app downloads per day, with 898 million HTTP requests totaling 88.3 TeraBytes served by its Content Delivery Network (CDN) every day. 

Behind the scenes, Flathub has been improving its infrastructure. Development efforts have focused on building features into the Flathub web app to move from a build service to an app store. These efforts include accounts for users and developers, payment processing via the Stripe payment platform, and enabling developers to manage upload tokens for the apps they control. In parallel, Flathub has been working on app verification and the corresponding features in flat-manager to ensure app metadata accurately reflects verification and pricing, and to provide authentication for paying users for app downloads.

Adding financial support is a big deal for both Flathub and Linux developers and users. As McQueen recently said, "Our largest remaining barrier to Linux desktop scale and impact is economic."

This isn't just a Flathub problem. It's a Linux desktop problem.

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McQueen blogged, "As a community, we continue to have a challenging relationship with money. Some creators are lucky enough to have a full-time job within the FLOSS space, while a few "superstar" developers are able to nurture some level of financial support by investing time in building a following through streaming, Patreon, Kickstarter, or similar. However, a large proportion of us has to make do with the main payback from our labors being a stream of bug reports on GitHub interspersed with occasional conciliatory beers at FOSDEM."

That's not enough. It's never been enough. McQueen continued, "if there is no financial payback for participating in developing apps for the free and open-source desktop, we will lose many people in the process -- despite the amazing achievements of those who have brought us to where we are today. As a result, we'll have far fewer developers and apps. If we can't offer access to a growing base of users or the opportunity to offer something of monetary value to them, the reward in terms of adoption and possible payment will be very small." 

Hopefully, the paid Flathub app store will succeed and in doing so, help make the Linux desktop far more popular than it is now.  

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