Package Mangement and Why Your Platform Needs an App Store

When I want to install an application on a computer that I use, I open a terminal and type something to the effect of:

apt-get install rxvt-unicode

Which is a great little terminal emulator. I recommend it. Assuming I have a live interned connection, and the application I'm installing isn't too large, a minute later or less I have whatever it is I asked for installed and ready to use (in most cases.)

Indeed this is the major feature of most Linux Distributions: their core technology and enterprise is to take all of the awesome software that's out there (and there's a lot of it,) and make it possible to install easily, to figure out what it depends on, and get it to compile safely and run on a whole host of machines. Although this isn't the kind of thing that most people think when they're choosing a distribution of Linux, one of the biggest differentiating features between distributions. But I digress.

I've written about package management here before, but to summarize:

  1. We use package managers because many programs share dependencies, that we wouldn't want to install twice or three times, but that we might not want to install by default with every installation of an operating system. Making sure that everything gets installed is important. This, is I think, a fairly unique-to-open-source problem, because in the proprietary system the dependencies are installed by default (as in there are more monolithic development environments, like .NET, Cocoa, and Java [1], and other older non-managed options).
  2. One of the defining characteristics of open source software is the fact that it's meant to be redistributed. Package management makes it easy to redistribute software, and provides real value for both the users of the operating system and for the upstream developers. Or so I'm lead to believe.

In the end, we're back at the beginning where, you can install just about anything in the world if you know what the package is named, and the operating system will blithely keep everything up to date and maintained. [2]

While GNU/Linux systems get flack for not being as useable as proprietary operating systems, I see package management as this huge "killer feature" that open source systems have on top of proprietary system. We'll never see something like apt-get for Windows not because it's not good technology, but because it's impossible to mange every component of the system and all of the software with a single tool. [3]

And then all these "App Store" things started popping up.

As I've thought about it, "App stores," do the same thing for application delivery on non-GNU/* systems that package management does for open source systems. We're seeing this sort of thing for various platforms from cell phones like the iPhone/Blackberry/Andriod to Inuit's QuickBooks and even for more conventional platforms like Java.

Technically it's a bit less interesting. App stores generally just receive and distribute compiled code, [4] but from a social and user-centric perspective, the app store experience is really quite similar to the package management experience.

I'm surely not the only one to make this connection, but I'd be interesting to move past this and think about the kinds of technological progress that stem from this. App stores clearly provide value to users by making applications easier to find, and to developers who can spend less time distributing their software. Are there greater advancements to be made here? Is this always going to be platform specific, or might there be some other sort of curatorial mechanism that might add even more value in this space? And of course, how does Free Software persist and survive in this kind of environment?

I look forward to hearing from you.

[1]Let's not bicker about this, because the argument breaks down here a bit, admittedly, given that Java is now, mostly open. But it wasn't designed as an open system, and all of these solve the dependency problem by--I think--providing a big "standard runtime," and statically compiling anything extra into the program's executable. Or something.
[2]Package management sometimes breaks things, it's true, but I've never really had a problem that I haven't been able to recover from in reasonably short order. I mean, things have broken, and I will be the first to admit that my systems are far from pristine, but everything works, and that's good enough for me.
[3]While its possible to use more than one package manager at once, and there are cases even on linux where this is common (i.e. CPAN shell, system packages (apt/deb, yum/rpm) and ruby gems, haskell cabal and so forth) it's not preferable: Sometimes a package will be installed by a language-specific program manager and then the system package manager will install (over it) a newer or older version of the package, which you might not notice, or it might just cause something to act a bit funny on some systems. If you're lucky, Usually stuff breaks.
[4]Which means, I think indirectly that we're seeing a move away from static linking and bundling of frameworks and into a single binary or bundle. This is one of the advancements of OS X, that all applications are delivered in these "bundles" which are just directories that contain everything that an application needs to run. Apple addressed the dependency problem by removing all dependencies. And this works in the contemporary world because if an App had to be a few extra megs to include its dependencies? No big deal. Same with Ram usage.
comments powered by Disqus