Flathub, the Linux desktop app store, is growing up

Maybe, just maybe, Flathub will become the universal Linux desktop app store. 

Rob McQueen, the GNOME Foundation Board President, looked into the future of Flathub, the Flatpak-based Linux desktop app, and he likes what he sees. McQueen reports Flathub has seen strong growth and ongoing progress.

Flathub now offers over 2,000 apps from over 1,500 GitHub collaborators. It's now averaging 700,000 app downloads per day, with 898 million HTTP requests totaling 88.3 TeraBytes served by its Content Delivery Network (CDN) every day. This growth is due, in part, to Flathub's ability to help developers publish their work in a way that makes it easy for people to discover, download, install, and use. And, lest we forget, eventually pay for them.

Flathub's success comes despite the challenges that have historically held back the mainstream growth and acceptance of desktop Linux. These problems include packaging difficulties for app developers that have made it hard for people to find, install, and use their applications. Flathub solves this by providing a common store and package platform to help users quickly discover and install applications.

Its success has also been boosted by its disintermediation between developers and users. This has led to Flathub offering hundreds of apps that have never been seen before on the Linux desktop space. Many of Flathub's distributor partners have recognized that this model is hugely complementary and additive to the indispensable work they are doing to bring the Linux desktop to end-users.

Behind the scenes, Flathub has been working to continue its growth. Development efforts have focused on building features into the Flathub web app to move from a build service to an app store. These efforts include accounts for users and developers, payment processing via the Stripe payment platform, and the ability for developers to manage upload tokens for the apps they control. In parallel, Flathub has been working on app verification and the corresponding features in flat-manager to ensure app metadata accurately reflects verification and pricing, and to provide authentication for paying users for app downloads when the developer enables it.

Flathub has also been working on legal and governance structures to support its continued growth. The platform is planning to establish an independent legal entity to own and operate Flathub. Today, the GNOME Foundation oversees Flathub, but soon, there will be a Flathub Foundation. First, however, all the legal details will be squared away.

To ensure that the voices of app creators, OS distributors, and Linux users are reflected in its plans for 2023 and beyond, Flathub is planning to launch Flathub Focus Groups at the Linux App Summit in Brno, the Czech Republic, in May 2023. This will be followed up with surveys and other opportunities for online participation.

In the meantime, McQueen, along with other Linux leaders, such as Martín Abente Lahaye from GNOME, Aleix Pol Gonzalez, Neofytos Kolokotronis, and Timothée Ravier from KDE, and Jorge Castro are " flying the flag for the Flathub community." This group also recognizes the early work towards creating Flathub by Neil McGovern and Nick Richard.

Flathub's success has been boosted by major sponsors and donors, including the GNOME Foundation, KDE e.V., Mythic Beasts, Endless Network, Fastly, and Equinix Metal via the CNCF Community Cluster. The platform is currently seeking a combination of grant funding and sponsorship to keep its roadmap moving.

It would be grand if Flathub had the financial resources to move forward quickly, but money, as McQueen acknowledges, remains a real problem. "Our largest remaining barrier to Linux desktop scale and impact is economic."

This isn't just a problem for Flathub. It's a problem for the Linux desktop, period.

McQueen noted, "As a community, we continue to have a challenging relationship with money. Some creators are lucky enough to have a full-time job within the FLOSS space, while a few “superstar” developers are able to nurture some level of financial support by investing time in building a following through streaming, Patreon, Kickstarter, or similar. However, a large proportion of us has to make do with the main payback from our labors being a stream of bug reports on GitHub interspersed with occasional conciliatory beers at FOSDEM."

That's not enough. It's never been enough. McQueen continued, "if there is no financial payback for participating in developing apps for the free and open-source desktop, we will lose many people in the process—despite the amazing achievements of those who have brought us to where we are today. As a result, we’ll have far fewer developers and apps. If we can’t offer access to a growing base of users or the opportunity to offer something of monetary value to them, the reward in terms of adoption and possible payment will be very small."

McQueen and his comrades know that there is still work to be done to create a platform that can give users confidence in the quality and security of the apps and can offer developers enough of a financial incentive to create Linux programs. Flathub is planning to set up infrastructure to help ensure developers ship the best products, such as automated linting and security scanning on the Flathub back end, while enabling them to profit from their applications.

Overall, Flathub has a real chance to continue its growth and provide a valuable service to the Linux community. Thanks to the tireless work of its developers, reviewers, sponsors, and donors, Flathub is helping to make it easier for people to discover, download, install, and use Linux apps.

Of course, there are endless debates over what's the "right" way to package, run and deliver Linux software. However, McQueen said, "Ultimately, no matter how beautiful, performant, or featureful the latest versions of the Plasma or GNOME desktops are, or how slick the newly rewritten installer is from your favorite distribution, all of the projects making up the Linux desktop ecosystem are subdividing between ourselves an absolutely tiny market share of the global market of personal computers. To make a bigger mark on the world, as a community, we need to get out more."

Indeed, we must. Or, we can continue to be content with the status quo of the Linux desktop being only for developers and Linux power users.

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