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January 1st, 2020

Linux & Open Source 2019: Chrome OS, Snap, Flatpak, RISC-V, and Stallman

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.

Zipping up 2019

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.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

12 comments to Linux & Open Source 2019: Chrome OS, Snap, Flatpak, RISC-V, and Stallman

  • Andrew McGlashan

    Great to see a different author, it’s been a long time. Welcome back!

  • NonSequiTourDeForce

    The problem with Chromebooks is a much more general one: User have become accustomed to being led like sheep from spending so much time on their phones. Nowadays they see freedom as an annoyance and refuse to use a computer if they are not told what to do.
    I have met people who yelled at me when I pointed out that some app does not really need that much personal information to do its job: “They say they need it, so i will give it to them!”
    So Google’s “all your data are belong to us” approach is in no danger of competition from the cheap local storage.

  • Nick

    “…except to note that almost everyone eventually retires”

    ‘Almost’ everyone?

  • Nick: Correct. Almost everyone eventually retires. The rest of us die while still working full time, which is happening to increasingly more people (I’m thinking “me”) who can’t afford to retire, although being well beyond retirement age.

  • Nick

    Retirement can be voluntary or involuntary. One form of involuntary retirement is dying. It’s still retirement.

  • True, and I thought of that. You’re being argumentative, Nick. 🙂

  • Jim

    Christine, I believe health, not wealth determines when mpst of people retire. It did for me. After 40+ years of working rotating shifts my health had significantly declined. I retired at 63. I think I would be dead if I had not.

  • Mike

    In Blade Runner, they ‘retired’ replicants, meaning they made the replicants stop working. 😉

    …also, ‘juggernault’?

  • Jim: At 69, I would have retired long ago, except that my social security check only amounts to a bit over $500 monthly, which certainly isn’t enough to live on. There are a lot like me.

  • Sum Yung Gai

    Hi Christine,

    Your point about Chromebooks and Google’s attempts to get everyone addicted to Google is prescient. In light of that, I must note that this very Web site has a big Google dependency, specifically the reCAPTCHA check! 🙂 Even FOSSForce is allowing themselves to “be assimilated…resistance is futile……” Now, as long as those Chromebooks can easily have something like, say, Debian or similar, i. e. a general-purpose GNU/Linux distro, then that is an advantage for F/OSS.

    Regarding “retirement”, let us recall that we’re talking specifically about RMS here. He has not “retired”. He remains the Chief GNUisance of the GNU Project with no plans to step down, and he didn’t “retire” from his FSF position; rather, he was pushed out.

    We actually already have “open source” silicon. Recall that the UltraSPARC T1 “Niagara” chip’s architecture is freely published, under the GNU GPL, and this 64-bit, relatively lower-power design could, with some modern refinements, continue to be a good one today. This is especially true for things like Web servers, email servers, and other stuff that doesn’t require high floating-point computations. That said, the more, the merrier; RISC-V is certainly welcome.

    Christine, your presence here, while perhaps due in some part to the small Social Security check, turns out to be a good thing for the rest of us. Your articles continue to be thought-provoking and generally pretty even-handed. So, while I’m not glad for the paltry SS check, I do consider us fortunate that you’re writing for FOSSForce.

    –SYG

  • Regarding open ISAs: what’s the status of PowerPC at this point? I know the spec was released royalty-free a few months back, but I can’t find any confirmation on whether it’s free-as-in-freedom.

  • Thad: I’ll be doing some reporting on the open source silicon situation “on another network” as they used to say, in the near future and IBM’s Power will be covered. Follow FOSS Force ( @FOSSForce ) or me ( @BrideOfLinux ) on Twitter and you’ll get notifications when those articles go up.

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