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Linux app depot Flathub may offer paid-for software

Latest twist in long saga of trying to monetize desktop penguinistas

The GNOME and KDE organizations are working on a proposal to crowdsource a big change in Flathub: to make it an app store for Linux – including for paid software.

The proposal appears on the GitHub page of the Plaintext Group. This is an initiative of Schmidt Futures – an NGO backed by former Alphabet chair Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy which is also funding AI research. The proposal's authors are quite big names in their own right too: GNOME president Robert McQueen, former GNOME executive director and Debian project leader Neil McGovern, and KDE president Aleix Pol.

The summary gets right to the point:

Promote diversity and sustainability in the Linux desktop community by adding payments, donations and subscriptions to the Flathub app store.

Although some in the FOSS community only discovered the proposal at the end of last week, the last change to the document was in mid-January. It's not brand new, and it's possible that this has been known by various Linux vendors for some time. The last modification date is before Canonical's recent move to expunge Flatpak from Ubuntu and its remixes. We have asked Canonical if they have any comment, but with no reply at the time of writing.

The Plaintext Group has had a Twitter account since 2020, but hasn't tweeted yet. It's possible that this wasn't meant to go public just yet, and it's only one of over a dozen proposals in the Plaintext Group's "OSS virtual incubator" folder.

Finding ways to fund open source software development is a long-standing issue, and many independent developers have been driven to despair over the lack of reward for even very widely used programs. We reported on this in connection with core-js earlier this month, but this was far from the first instance. Various efforts to attract sponsorship go back years.

The big Linux corporates mainly focus on server products and services, which has been very lucrative for Red Hat and not too shabby for SUSE. This doesn't help the desktop world, though.

Canonical asked for donations to get Ubuntu over the line a decade ago, but that subsequently disappeared. Elementary OS has an interesting "pay what you want" model, which seems to have worked fairly well, although the company faced problems which delayed the latest release. Zorin OS has a simpler model still: only the basic versions are free, and the full edition costs $39.

These initiatives have helped some of the smaller distro vendors, but not the broader community of desktop developers. Turning Flathub into a store and adding paid apps does not sound harmful in and of itself. Once money is involved, though, there are issues around legal liabilities, revenue sharing and so on.

A paid store requires moderation and content curation, and even the big, vastly lucrative commercial ones – which can presumably afford armies of staff to inspect the contents – have faced problems with predatory apps, plus questions of censorship.

At this stage, the idea remains just a proposal. This is a difficult area with thorny problems, and it seems likely that it will require full-time staff. The question then becomes whether it can make more than it costs to run, and how much of its revenues reach the developers. ®

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