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Thursday, 16 June 2016 12:03

How high will Shuttleworth's snap initiative fly?

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Over the last 12 years since he started the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, Mark Shuttleworth, the man behind Canonical, has made many efforts to bring about what he has characterised as unity in the Linux community.

Of course, whenever he has suggested such initiatives — like universal release schedules, for example  he has always had a vested interest in them himself. Nothing wrong with that, if the initiatives were also benefitting the Linux community at large.

But given that he has rubbed up far too many people the wrong way, his initiatives have generally failed to gain acceptance. And his latest move, to have a single packaging format for Linux packages, something he calls snap, has already brought out opposition.

Shuttleworth made the announcement overnight on Tuesday at a well-attended conference call. Unfortunately, his PR people forgot that Australia has a number of people who might be interested in attending as well and did not offer a local number to dial in.

Snap is a package format that has been developed for the Ubuntu mobile operating system, the one that is used on the Ubuntu phones, that have now been out for about a year. (I have been using one for the last three weeks and will have more to say about it sometime in the near future).

So Shuttleworth will benefit to the extent that once developers start packaging things for snap, the number of applications available for the Ubuntu phone will increase. This is something sorely needed, given that Shuttleworth is playing catch up with app stores run by the bigger mobile players where there are too many apps for anyone's good.

Kyle Keen, an Arch Linux maintainer, made the salient point about this kind of packaging format giving developers control over the entire process. "Shuttleworth has explicitly stated that the whole point of their new universal packages is to take control away from the maintainers/users and give it to the ISV," Keen wrote.

"To quote: 'With snappy Ubuntu, Owncloud can publish exactly what they want you to use as a snappy package, and can update that for you directly, in a safe transactional manner with full support for rolling back. I think upstream developers are going to love being in complete control of their app on snappy Ubuntu Core'."

Keen also pointed out that this would lessen the number of people involved in looking after an app; normally, each Linux distribution has a maintainer for each app that is part of the distro. One maintainer may look after dozens of packages, tailoring it to the needs of the distribution.

Once upstream developers package everything, then the maintainer is taken out of the process. And this, Keen says, could well lead to snap packages being repackaged to include a little adware here or there, and offered again under a slightly different name. This process happens with unfailing regularity on the app stores for mobile devices.

"The reality: App Stores have been a nearly unmitigated disaster for users," Keen wrote. "Supposedly one of Linux's failings is that there is too much pointless choice, too many K and G versions of things and it divides developer efforts.

"Why have so many window managers and text editors? App Stores have the same problem. With the traditional FOSS model, there are a hundred different programs and each program is missing a different feature. In the App Store, there are a hundred different programs doing the same thing but each screws the user over in a slightly different way. Spying? Ads? Battery sucking rookie mistakes? Battery sucking bitcoin mining botfarm? Take your pick."

Keen feels that maintainers are the difference. "The maintainer is the primary line of defence and interaction between users and developers. Maintainers also shield users from developers, offering a layer of quality control."

He added: "It is simply not possible for abusive software to exist in Linux today. No maintainer would willingly release it. If a maintainer ever got a reputation for releasing abusive software they would be stripped of their privileges. Someone who cares steps up and becomes a maintainer instead. The system is aggressively self-correcting. It has been like this for 20 years, so much to the point that few Linux ISVs even consider being unethical. And Linux users have a very hard time imagining that any ISV could ever act in bad faith."

While the snap packages may come into being for many distributions, the extent of usage is what will decide whether it becomes popular or not. Distributions can continue using their own package formats and users, who have not had anything adverse to say on this front, will just keep on using them.

Shuttleworth will continue to do what he has to in order to make his company profitable and assure its existence well into the future. Many people will back him in his efforts for, despite his inability to build consensus, he has done a lot to make Linux more usable by Joe Public.

If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how the opposition to snap packages coalesces.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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