Introduction to Flatpak
Flatpak is a framework for distributing desktop applications across various Linux distributions. It has been created by developers who have a long history of working on the Linux desktop, and is run as an independent open source project.
Flatpak: a system for building, distributing, and running sandboxed desktop applications on Linux.
Flatpak application: these are the applications the user installs via the
flatpakcommand or via a different UI like GNOME Software or KDE Discover.
Runtime: also called platforms, these are integrated platforms to provide basic utilities needed for a Flatpak application to work.
BaseApp: these are integrated platforms for frameworks like Electron.
Flatpak bundle: a specific single-file export format which contains a Flatpak app or runtime.
Flatpak can be used by all kinds of desktop applications, and aims to be as agnostic as possible regarding how applications are built. There are no requirements regarding which programming languages, build tools, toolkits or frameworks can be used.
While Flatpak only runs on Linux, it can be used by applications that target other operating systems, as well as those that are Linux-specific. Applications can be open source or proprietary (although some distribution services, like Flathub, can have restrictions in this respect).
The only technical requirements made by Flatpak are that applications follow a small number of Freedesktop standards, in order to enable desktop integration (see Requirements & Conventions).
Issues of current model of packaging
It is important to understand the problems of the current model of packaging applications to understand the existence of Flatpak:
Duplicated work packaging apps: many Linux distributions come with their own package manager, package format and repository. This requires a lot of maintainers to package the same application in various distributions, or the application developer to learn the language of each format and then package the application in those distributions, or ignore most distributions and package and support a couple of distributions. This makes the Linux desktop a difficult platform for software vendors to target.
Limited to apps that are packaged: not all applications are natively available in every Linux distribution. If an application is not available in a specific distribution, the user will have to rely on manually downloading the archive of the application, extracting it and hoping the application will launch.
Limited to distributions that have the apps: the user is limited to the number of distributions that have the needed applications for them to properly setup their workflow. This reduces the amount of distributions that can be suitable for a user.
Hard to innovate in OS space: the maintainers of the distributions have to spend a lot of time packaging applications to make the distribution suitable for the end user, instead of focusing on their end goals. This delays the progress of each distribution.
Old and outdated packages: LTS distributions often have very old versions of applications packaged natively. Bug reproducibility is hindered by the different environments that applications are run in, and application developers often have little control over how their application is packaged by distributions.
Flatpak strives to fix the issues listed above, by conveniently enabling developers to distribute applications from one source and to target the entire Linux desktop.
Reasons to use Flatpak
Flatpak has some major advantages over most system package managers:
Universality: Flatpak allows applications to be installed and run on virtually any Linux distribution. This includes non-GNU distributions, systemd-free distributions, distributions with a read-only operating system (OS), and various architectures without the developer needing the relevant hardware on hand.
Space for innovations: Flatpak facilitates distribution maintainers to focus on their goals to innovate their distribution.
Stability: breakage in a Flatpak application will not risk the system from breaking. This is because Flatpak applications and runtimes are contained to not interfere with the system altogether.
Rootless install: elevated privileges are not required when installing a Flatpak application or a runtime.
Sandboxed applications: one of Flatpak’s main goals is to increase the security of desktop systems by isolating applications from one another. This is achieved using sandboxing and means that, by default, applications that are run with Flatpak have limited access to the host environment.
Flatpak has some major advantages over other universal approaches to distributing applications on Linux:
Decentralized by design: while Flatpak does provide a centralized service for distributing applications, it also allows decentralized hosting and distribution, so that application developers or downstreams can host their own applications and application repositories.
Desktop integration: Flatpak also offers native integration for the main Linux desktops, so that users can easily browse, install, run and use Flatpak applications through their existing desktop environment and tools.
Space efficiency: Flatpak deduplicates libraries and other files used by multiple applications to save megabytes or even gigabytes worth of storage depending on the amount of applications installed.
Delta updates: only changed files are downloaded for updates.
Other benefits for developers include:
Forward-compatibility: the same Flatpak application can be run on different versions of the same distribution, including versions that haven’t been released yet. This doesn’t require any changes or management by application developers.
Bundling: this allows application developers to ship almost any dependency or library as part of their application. This gives complete control over which software is used to build applications.
Consistent application environments: because these are the same across devices, applications perform as intended. This also makes it easier to identify bugs and to do testing.
Branches: this allows developers to ship applications from different branches, e.g.
beta, etc. while retaining the same name.
Maintained platforms: called runtimes, these contain collections of dependencies, which can be used by applications, and which can take a lot of the work out of application development.
Information about Flatpak’s internals can be found in Under the Hood.