I don't think any of Flatpak, Snappy, traditional Linux distros, non-traditional Linux distros, containers, online services, or other forms of software distribution are a good solution for all users. They all fail in some way, and each of them requires continued, ongoing effort to be acceptable even within their limitations.

This week, there's been some discussion about Flatpak, a software distribution approach that's (mostly) independent of traditional Linux distributions. There's also, Snappy, which is Canonical's similar thing.

The discussion started with the launch of a new website attacking Flatpak as a technology. I'm not going to link to it, since it's an anonymous attack and rant, and not constructive. I'd rather have a constructive discussion. I'm also not going to link to rebuttals, and will just present my own view, which I hope is different enough to be interesting.

The website raises the issue that Flatpak's sandboxing is not as good as it should be. This seems to be true. Some of Flatpak's defenders respond that it's an evolving technology, which seems fair. It's not necessary to be perfect; it's important to be better than what came before, and to constantly improve.

The website also raises the point that a number of flatpaks themselves contain unfixes security problems. I find this to be more worrying than an imperfect sandbox. A security problem inside a perfect sandbox can still be catastrophic: it can leak sensitive data, join a distributed denial of service attack, use excessive CPU and power, and otherwise cause mayhem. The sandbox may help in containing the problem somewhat, but to be useful for valid use, the sandbox needs to allow things that can be used maliciously.

As a user, I want software that's...

  • easy to install and update
  • secure to install (what I install is what the developers delivered)
  • always up to date with security fixes, including for any dependencies (embedded in the software or otherwise)
  • reasonably up to date with other bug fixes
  • sufficiently up to date with features I want (but I don't care a about newer features that I don't have a use for)
  • protective of my freedoms and privacy and other human rights, which includes (but is not restricted to) being able to self-host services and work offline

As a software developer, I additionally want my own software to be...

  • effortless to build
  • automatically tested in a way that gives me confidence it works for my users
  • easy to deliver to my users
  • easy to debug
  • not be broken by changes to build and runtime dependencies, or at least make such changes be extremely obvious, meaning they result in a build error or at least an error during automated tests

These are requirements that are hard to satisfy. They require a lot of manual effort, and discipline, and I fear the current state of software development isn't quite there yet. As an example, the Linux kernel development takes great care to never break userland, but that requires a lot of care when making changes, a lot of review, and a lot of testing, and a willingness to go to extremes to achieve that. As a result, upgrading to a newer kernel version tends to be a low-risk operation. The glibc C library, used by most Linux distributions, has a similar track record.

But Linux and glibc are system software. Flatpak is about desktop software. Consider instead LibreOffice, the office suite. There's no reason why it couldn't be delivered to users as a Flatpak (and indeed it is). It's a huge piece of software, and it needs a very large number of libraries and other dependencies to work. These need to be provided inside the LibreOffice Flatpak, or by one or more of the Flatpak "runtimes", which are bundles of common dependencies. Making sure all of the dependencies are up to date can be partly automated, but not fully: someone, somewhere, needs to make the decision that a newer version is worth upgrading to right now, even if it requires changes in LibreOffice for the newer version to work.

For example, imagine LO uses a library to generate PDFs. A new version of the library reduces CPU consumption by 10%, but requires changes, because the library's API (programming interface) has changed radically. The API changes are necessary to allow the speedup. Should LibreOffice upgrade to the new version of not? If 10% isn't enough of a speedup to warrant the effort to make the LO changes, is 90%? An automated system could upgrade the library, but that would then break the LO build, resulting in something that doesn't work anymore.

Security updates are easier, since they usually don't involve API changes. An automated system could upgrade dependencies for security updates, and then trigger automated build, test, and publish of a new Flatpak. However, this is made difficult by there is often no way to automatically, reliably find out that there is a security fix released. Again, manual work is required to find the security problem, to fix it, to communicate that there is a fix, and to upgrade the dependency. Some projects have partial solutions for that, but there seems to be nothing universal.

I'm sure most of this can be solved, some day, in some manner. It's definitely an interesting problem area. I don't have a solution, but I do think it's much too simplistic to say "Flatpaks will solve everything", or "the distro approach is best", or "just use the cloud".