Today KDE released Plasma 5.12 with Long Term Support–the culmination of more than a year of work. It’s really awesome, and we think you’ll love it!
But how do you get it!?
It all depends on your distro! Let’s look at Linux distros today.
What makes a distro a distro?
Today it’s mostly the choice of release model. “Stable release” distros like Ubuntu and Linux Mint lock everything to a specific version, only offering feature upgrades only when a new major version of the distro is released. “Rolling release” distros like Arch and openSUSE Tumbleweed give you everything as close to the developers’ schedules as possible.
Each model has drawbacks:
- Stable release distros will often saddle users with ancient, years-old software. For example, users of Debian Stable might not get to experience KDE Plasma 5.12 for another 2 or 3 years–or even longer.
- Rolling release distros expose users to the latest version of everything, turning them into QA. Underlying system libraries often change and break apps that use them. The breakage is usually fixed quickly, but users are exposed to it in the first place.
Certain distros additionally try to go beyond mere packaging and releasing, and actually try to ensure some QA and polish in the final product. Distros like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Manjaro, and Elementary that follow this model quickly rocket up to the top of the popularity pyramid. Users are desperate for distros with better QA and polish!
But it’s exhausting; if you package all the software, you’re responsible for it too. It’s a huge job, even for distros that base themselves on others, as they find themselves having to patch on top of patches, and manage two release cycles (their own, and the parent distro’s). Turnover and burnout are common.
Flatpak and Snap to the rescue
Flatpack or Snap provide the solution: 3rd party packaging. Instead of the distros doing the packaging, it comes either straight from the developers, or from a 3rd-party intermediary like Flathub.
For distros, the benefits are enormous: liberated from the grunt work chores of packaging and patching software, distros will be free to step wholeheartedly into their natural roles as arbiters of the final user experience, concentrating on impactful tasks like integrating diverse components, managing hardware support, performing QA, polishing the final product, and delivering it to users in an easy-to access manner. Fixes and patches can be submitted upstream, instead of duplicated locally. This is KDE’s relationship to Qt, in fact. It works great.
Snap and Flatpak also improve things for users and developers:
- Users get to choose whether they want each app to be stable, up-to-date, or cutting-edge according to their preferences, and they get a clear chain of responsibility when there’s a bug.
- Developers get to package their apps only once to make them available to everyone, and get to determine for themselves their software’s presentation, branding, and release schedule–rather than hoping that packagers for 500 different Linux distros do it for them, and then having to deal with bug reports about versions of their software that are years old.
Ultimately, Flatpak or Snap liberate us from the tyranny of low-quality distros that make Linux software look bad because they don’t do QA, integration, or UX testing to make sure that the final product is of high quality. Many will rightly vanish because they’re not providing much value for users or generating enough developer interest to continue existing. Once this happens, developers and users will gather around the smaller number of remaining distros, increasing each of their levels of manpower and user bases.
So no, distros don’t go away. In fact, the distros that are worth keeping will be able to focus on tasks that offer more value to users than mere software packaging. Far from erasing diversity, this will empower real and meaningful diversity–where we have a handful of really good and strongly differentiated distros whose products embody different philosophies, instead of an overwhelming number of mediocre distros with often only minimal differences, none of which really work well once you dig deeply. We’ll all win, and all of these vastly superior distros will be far stronger contenders when compared to Windows, macOS, and ChromeOS.
How you can help
There are many ways for you to help enter this brave new world of actual QA and polished products.
Users: If your favorite app offers a Flatpak or Snap version, use it! Quite a lot do. If you find problems, file bugs! If you find an app listing in KDE Discover or GNOME Software that doesn’t look good, submit better information! If you find cases where duplicate apps appear when browsing, submit patches to fix it!
Software developers: Provide high-quality AppStream metadata and please submit your apps to Flathub! This goes for KDE developers, too. Krita and Kdenlive are already up, but I want to see Dolphin, Konsole, Kate, and all the rest!
Distro developers: don’t fight Flatpak or Snap; embrace them (and Flathub) and liberate yourself from packaging chores. Focus less on packaging software for your users, and more on performing the QA necessary to make sure that that software actually works well.
As always, consider becoming a KDE contributor if you like what you see! We can’t do this without you.