We look back on 2019 using our 2020 hindsight at some of the important happenings during the last year in the world of Linux and open source.
Practically everybody else has jumped in with their retrospective of free and open source software in 2019, so I figure it’s time for me to offer my two-cents worth on the subject.
Chromebook’s Continued Growth
The staying power of Google’s Chromebook technology has been something of a good news/bad news story.
On the good news side, growing sales of laptops running Linux-based Chrome OS means a lessening of the dominance of Windows, no matter how slight, which is definitely good for those who believe that the Windows monoculture isn’t good for the desktop ecostructure. It’s also welcome news that the OS is now capable of running applications designed to run on the traditional desktop Linux operating system (GNU/Linux, if you will), as well as apps designed for Android devices.
Linux apps running on Chromebooks might be more important than you think.
Obviously, it’s good for Chrome users, who now have a broader selection of apps from which to choose. It’s also good for Linux app developers, because it means their projects now have the potential for a much larger base of users. More importantly, for us real Linux desktop users it means we’ll probably see more software choices showing up in our distros’ repositories, as it now makes more sense for developers to port apps to Linux in order to take advantage of the combined Chrome OS/Linux market.
On the down side, Chrome OS is a monoculture controlled by a single corporate juggernault that has shown over and again that it doesn’t share many of the core values of the FOSS communities. Sure, Chromebooks run Linux at their core, and it’s the open source kernel that does most of the heavy lifting, but the operating system itself is proprietary — just like Windows and just like MacOS. It’s also designed to take much of the benefits of personal computing out of the hands of the user, and hand them over to cloud operators by pushing Software as a Service and cloud-based storage (that mostly defaults to Google-owned solutions).
In an age where terabyte hard drives and fast CPUs are dirt cheap by historical standards, this really doesn’t make sense from a technological standpoint, but this hasn’t stopped Goog from selling Chrome OS as a way for consumers to save money by avoiding having to pay for storage and robust processing. From where I sit, this smells like a sham to get users hooked on Google, and unfortunately the public is buying it lock, stock, and barrel.
Meanwhile, we real Linux users might benefit from this mass gullibility by having more software titles available to run natively on our machines.
Snaps and Flatpaks Catch On With Devs and Users
While Linux apps on Chromebooks might eventually mean more software choices for traditional Linux users, Snap and Flatpak are already pulling off the same trick without depriving anybody of anything.
In case you don’t know, Snap and Flatpak are ways of containerizing software for installation on Linux, making it easy to install and run on any distro. No longer do developers have to port Linux-bound software for numerous distros — they can just put in in a Snap or Flatpak, both of which are pretty much downloadable and installable with a single click.
Each Snap or Flatpak is also sandboxed, giving users some degree of security comfort. And each container contains all of the dependencies necessary to run the application, meaning users don’t have to worry about being put into dependency hell with the installation of new software.
Already a lot of software that was previously unavailable for Linux is now available on Flathub and/or the Snap Store, which is where you go to find software packaged in these formats. Snap was developed by Ubuntu, which means that all the official baby *buntus (as well as the other Ubuntu-based distros) are good-to-go with them, and Fedora was an early adopter of Flatpak, meaning it’s supported by Fedora out-of-the-box. Those using distros that don’t support one or the other shouldn’t worry. Enabling support for either is easy-peasy.
Currently I have a couple of Snaps installed on my machines, one of which is the Slack desktop client which I use daily.
RISC-V Brings Open Source Silicon to Linux
Shortly after SiFive released their HiFive Unleashed developer board featuring a CPU based on the open source RISC-V ISO specification in 2018, Debian and Fedora begin work to port their distros to work on the boards.
At the time, a full-fledged RISC-V CPU capable of running a server or desktop was thought to be at least a decade away, but last year SiFive’s CEO Naveed Sherwani told me that the evolution of the RISC-V ISO is speeding up and that RISC-V running “cellphones and laptops are two years away, and servers are five years away.” That was nearly a year ago, meaning we can probably shave a year off of both numbers.
Richard Stallman’s Retirement
2019 also saw the resignation of Richard Stallman as the head of the FSF, whose Free Software vision (as well as the GPL license that he authored) was ground zero for what became the open source movement.
I’m not going to say much about Stallman’s leaving the foundation he founded, except to note that almost everyone eventually retires, and to wish that his leaving hadn’t come under a cloud. May he be remembered as the father of Free Software and of copyleft licensing.