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Cross Platform Application Installer Meeting Could Mark A Milestone: Debian Project Leader

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openSuse’s Vincent Untz organized a meeting around cross-platform application installer in Germany. The meeting was attended by developers representing major distros. Debian is one of the most reputed distributions, which also wears the crown of being the father/mother of popular distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint. We talked to Stefano Zacchiroli, Debian project leader, to understand his take on the meeting. Read on…

Swapnil: From Debian’s POV what is the goal of this initiatives and how it helps users and developers?
Stefano: Since its very beginning, Debian has been committed to give back to the Free Software community. Back then, “giving back” only meant working together with upstream software authors forwarding bugs and patches, so that the software could be improved not only for Debian users, but for everybody.

Today that part is still a must, but the Free Software ecosystem is much more complex. There are several distributions stakeholders which sometimes base their work on one another (so called “derived distributions”) and sometimes collaborate by other means (e.g. by sharing patches with respect to upstream, prepare together fixes to security vulnerabilities, etc.).

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To be faithful to our “giving back” principle, Debian has recently been very attentive to cross-distribution, for instance we’ve been present recently at both OpenSUSE at Ubuntu developer conferences to discuss venues of collaboration.

When Vincent Untz proposed to me this meeting I was very excited about it. The idea of getting people of several different distributions around the same table, share existing technologies, as well as design new ones to improve the software selection process, … it just felt right.

Swapnil: What are the possibilities of one central App Store which cater to all users irrespective of the distro they use? Do you think that is a possibility or anywhere in your agenda? What I say may not make sense, but the way we have common desktop environments which runs on different distros, is it not possible to have similar model for app store?
Stefano: It is definitely too early to think about that. Let’s not forget that a distribution is not just a collection of software; a distribution blends software together to form a coherent set of applications which adhere to some common quality standards.

While initiative likes Free Desktop have gone a long way to produce cross-distribution standards, per-distribution packaging policies still differ and in that differences we find the distinguishing traits of individual distributions. Losing those difference will not necessarily be good for Free Software, so I think that a single “App Store” might still be a red herring.

It might be feasible to have it for third party, sandboxed applications, but in order for them to rely on core packages the difficult problem of dependencies (whose semantics change from distribution to distribution) will need to be faced. I don’t feel like making a wild guess of how it will turn out to be, but Debian will be around to collaborate with others on these topics.

Swapnil: What conclusion Debian team drew from this meeting and how is the project planning to collaborate with other projects over this?
Stefano: I haven’t participated in person to the meeting, but from the reports for the Debian community that the Debian representatives have prepared [1, 2, 3] it is clear, for once, that the meeting has been very productive. From the Debian point of view, I’m also quite proud to observe that we have had a chance to “give back” several Debian technologies, such as: screenshot.debian.net (by Christoph Haas), apt-xapian-index, and debtags (by Enrico Zini).

I hope other distributions will be ready to give back their technologies, even when that imply lifting contribution barriers that might inhibit exchange of code among different open source companies.

More generally, having witnessed the early organization steps of the meeting, I’m inclined to think that this meeting could mark a milestone in the way different distributions work together. To that end we need venues where to coordinate similar meetings and where we can be sure to reach out to as many distributions as possible.

The “distribution” mailing list hosted by freedesktop is very good to that end and will be even more so if representatives of other distributions will join it.

Swapnil: What kind of user is this project/initiative targeting. How important is end-user for Debian and its derivative projects like Ubuntu which are kinda branching off with initiatives like Unity and Wayland?

Stefano: All what I’ve read from the meeting is about foundational work that has no specific end-user in mind. Enriching package metadata with external information, possibly shared across distributions, is useful for every package and, therefore, can improve the software selection process for every possible user.

“End-users”, as you call them, are very important for Debian, but we are not making the implicit assumption you seem to make that “end-users = desktop users”. Those are one specific class of users, whose need we try to address with the “desktop environment” task that can be chosen, among several other tasks, at the end of the installation of a Debian system (or by running “tasksel” on a preexisting Debian installation).

Regarding the specific Ubuntu’s branching off initiatives you mention (Unity, Wayland, etc.), we have nothing against packaging them: if it is Free Software, if users want it, and if someone volunteers to maintain the corresponding package, they will be in the Debian archive.

When it comes to modifying upstream software heavily changing the default user experience that upstream had in mind, though, we are more conservative than that. We try to drift as little as possible from upstream and to work with them to agree on significant changes. That is, after all, part of the role of a distribution.

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