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By order of Canonical: Official Ubuntu flavors must stop including Flatpak by default

You can add Snap's rival cross-distro packaging format back in yourself

Canonical has issued an official edict: the approved Ubuntu remixes must remove Flatpak support as of the next release.

The various Ubuntu flavors are not Canonical products. Only the original Ubuntu, with the GNOME desktop, is the "real thing." Even so, the company does have some control as it's Canonical that officially sanctions and endorses what is an official flavor, and what isn't. And Canonical has spoken: From the next release, no official variant shall support Flatpak any more. Canonical has its own official cross-platform packaging format, Snap, and as from version 23.04, only Snap is to be built in. The Flatpak plugin for the Software store will be removed too.

The eight official flavors – or remixes, as The Reg FOSS desk tends to call them – are Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu Budgie, Ubuntu Kylin, Ubuntu Mate, Ubuntu Studio, Ubuntu Unity, and Xubuntu. The requirements for recognition are fairly simple. Among them are that all the components must come from the Ubuntu repositories, releases must be synced with those of the primary distro, bugs must be tracked through Launchpad, and so on.

(We note with interest that no "Kinetic Kudu" release of Ubuntu Kylin is on Ubuntu's downloads page, although there are test builds of "Lunar Lobster", so maybe it won't be dropped just yet.)

In our story about Ubuntu Unity becoming an official flavor, we mentioned that it includes Flatpak support by default. It wasn't the first, though: that was Ubuntu MATE, which added Flatpak in 22.04. Among others, it appears in the manifest for Kubuntu 22.10, and it was slated to be added in Xubuntu 23.04.

There are of course lots of unofficial Ubuntu-based distros, some of which we've looked at: Ubuntu Cinnamon still isn't official, although its young maintainer, Joshua Peisach, is aiming for official status.

The Franco-Hibernian rival project Linux Mint definitely isn't official, nor does it seek to be. Nor is its neighbor, the Ukraino-Hibernian Zorin OS, the New Zealand-led Linux Lite, or Teejeetech's lightweight but galvanized Zinc. They are free to include or remove whatever they want. As such, Mint ditches Snap, replacing it with Flatpak. Both Linux Lite and Zinc have neither format pre-installed, although Zinc offers Nala and Deb-Get instead. ZorinOS installs both systems, and the paid editions of Zorin OS include dozens of pre-installed Flatpak apps, which is why it takes a whopping 30-plus gigabytes of disk.

If you like Flatpak – and a lot of people do – then you needn't worry. The Flatpak tooling will remain in Ubuntu's repositories, so you will be able to add it back in very easily, as described on Flathub. There are just three steps, and you can even skip one of those if you don't use the graphical software store.

Despite strong popular support for Flatpak, as we covered in our first report from the Ubuntu Summit, Canonical stands firmly behind its Snap format. It's not surprising that it doesn't want Snap's main rival included by default. Snap remains the more capable tool: it supports server apps on machines with no GUI, which Flatpak can't, and it's the only packaging format in Ubuntu Core.

There are Flatpak-only distros, such as the Debian-based Endless OS and Red Hat's Fedora spins, the GNOME-based Silverblue and its KDE-based counterpart Kinoite. However, in addition to Flatpak, they all need to include OStree as well to handle OS updates – because Flatpak can't do that.

On machines with sophisticated file systems, such as Btrfs in Fedora, it's possible to use compression to reduce the space used by the duplicate files inside Flatpaks. The especially intrepid could also enable deduplication.

Each Snap package is a single file, so these sort of features won't give any benefit – but Snaps are compressed with the standard squashfs tool anyway, which is intelligent enough to decompress only the requested files on the fly, not the whole file system every time. Every Snap is compressed, regardless of the underlying file system, and recent versions let the packager choose between different compression algorithms. Ubuntu 21.10 packaged Firefox as a Snap, and users saw slower startup times as a result. So Canonical switched to an algorithm that did faster decompression, resulting in 50 per cent faster launches.

Yes, there is only one official Snap store, Canonical's own Snapcraft. But don't believe the FUD: it's perfectly possible to run your own if you wish. There's nothing proprietary in there, the APIs are documented, and the tools to publish a Snap store online are in Ubuntu's repositories. As we covered a year ago, the maintainer of Ubuntu Unity published his own, called lol, as a proof of concept.

We have to point out that there are several downsides to having multiple cross-platform packagers installed. They don't understand one another's dependency mechanisms, which will lead to significant duplication of large packages. Updates also become more tricky. Whether you use the apt or apt-get commands, a replacement such as Aptitude, Nala, or Wajig, it doesn't matter: none of these will update Flatpak apps. Snaps have to be updated separately, and Ubuntu schedules this as a background task by default. Flatpak users have to do that manually.

We find it perfectly understandable for Canonical to make this move, and we sympathize. It has its own tool to promote, which is arguably superior, and if it doesn't want to endorse rivals, that's fair enough. Nothing is being put in to prevent users from installing Flatpak if they so wish. The change will take effect from the late-April release of all the Ubuntu Lunar Lobster flavors. ®

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