Autopackage 1.0, the now and the next

After two and a half years of work, autopackage 1.0 has finally escaped into the wild. It has a fundamentally new design, and offers an alternative system of software distribution and management on Linux. This article will talk about what this means for the Linux community, and what new directions and possibilities it opens up. It’ll talk about problems remaining to be solved, and finally it will propose solutions for them. If you just want to see what autopackage is like, check out the screenshots or the Flash demo, available from the website.

What is autopackage?

At heart, it’s about allowing developers
to provide binary packages that can be used by every Linux user,
regardless of what distribution or desktop they run. While not
perfect, its success rate is already high and will become higher
in future. Though young, there are already autopackages of Gaim, Inkscape and
. It is also being used by much smaller projects such as the
GtkQt engine
or Lincity which otherwise
would have no packages for most distributions, rendering them
difficult and awkward to install for many users.

It has several interesting features apart from working on any
distribution: it understands dependencies and
can resolve them. It supports multiple frontends,
with both textual and GUI frontends coming out of the box. It
ships with a manager application that lets you uninstall
3rd party software installed using autopackage (and in future,
this will develop into a generic tool that works for all
packages). Most importantly, it’s been designed with usability in
mind from the ground up.

“What idiots, a new package format is the last thing we need!”

To do things like support dependency resolution without depending
on particular distributions or package managers, a new dependency
model had to be devised and implemented. To provide binaries that
would run reliably on a rainbow of machines, new tools such
as apbuild and relaytool were written. To provide
the flexibility needed to deal with a wide range of systems, a
completely script/API based approach was used. To provide an
aesthetically pleasing experience GTK+ and Qt frontends were
developed. And finally, to make it simple even for non-technical
users, the ability to bootstrap the whole thing just by running
the packages themselves was added. To meet these requirements it
would not have been possible to adapt existing formats.

There was an additional, psychological reason. By providing a new
format, users who have been failed by the existing system have a
concrete feature request to make of the developers – rather than
being limited to vague expressions of dissatisfaction, users can
ask developers for something specific to help them. As developers
learn how to build autopackages, we can show them how to make
their software easier to install by evaluating dependencies for
stability, penetration (how many systems it’s installed on) and so
on. We can also teach them how to use programs like relaytool to relax
dependencies. They can then begin to improve their software to be
easier to install, for ease of installation – like usability – is
not something that can be slapped on in five minutes. It must be
considered while the software is built.

What’s wrong with depsolvers like apt?

Now apt and friends are fine tools for sure, but they do not solve
the developers problem of how to get the latest version of their
program to their users now, and not in six months time when
it finally gets packaged and integrated into the repositories of
all the distributions out there. The apt model of centralised
repositories is the polar opposite of the decentralised model of
software distribution as used by Windows, MacOS X and BeOS. What
makes sense for the packages comprising the operating system
itself doesn’t make much sense for third party applications. Even
if it was possible to provide an apt repository in which
everything was packaged and everything was up to date, the
usability problems would be crippling. Synaptic offers
unmanageable lists of choice and solutions such as
gnome-app-install simply lessen the problem but do not eliminate
it. Even search-oriented rather than list-oriented interfaces have
problems: no matter how smart your searching is, you’ll never beat
Google. Other problems, which you can read about in the FAQ, slam
the nails into the coffin of this model.

Moving to a decentralised model for distributing applications
raises fundamental questions about the structure and design of
Linux. It’s no longer enough to guarantee source code portability
– instead, binary portability must be provided too. It’s no longer
enough to check for optional libraries in a configure script and
compile the code to use them out when missing, instead the
libraries must be linked to at runtime and the fallback path used
if the library is missing. It’s no longer enough to have to guess
what is on your users systems: instead a large and solid platform
is required on which developers can build.

During the development of autopackage, we have considered and
addressed many of these problems. Binary portability problems have
been tackled with an easy to use GCC wrapper, called apbuild. The
POSIX dlopen interface is awkward to work with, so relaytool was
written to make weak linkage a snap. It makes it easy to fall
back to the old GTK+ file chooser if the new one is not available,
or disable spell checking if gtkspell isn’t installed. Finally
binreloc is a toolkit for making programs installable to any
prefix at runtime: this allows users without root to install
software to their home directory, and administrators can install
programs to network mounts and additional hard disks without
needing union mounts or LVM. It’s a rule that autopackages must be

Looking towards the future

There are lots of ideas and plans for what happens now. Probably
the most important is native package manager integration. Right
now, autopackages integrate well with a variety of desktop
environments. However, it doesn’t integrate much with the
underlying package management technology. In future, it will do

That means registering with the RPM database when a package is
installed so you can list its files and metadata, so it can
fulfil dependencies for other RPMs and so it’s possible to
smoothly upgrade a package from RPM to an autopackage or
vice-versa. It means using apt-get, yum or emerge to resolve
dependencies as well as autopackages own built-in dep
resolution. Finally, it means a way to put autopackages inside apt
repositories to aid deployment on managed networks.

Dependency hell is a difficult problem to solve, as you may have
guessed by the fact that it still plagues Linux as late as
2005. Nothing in the design of autopackage stops a developer
depending on extremely new, rare or unstable libraries – the
primary cause. While autopackages check the system directly for
what they need (so avoiding the problem of inconsistent metadata
and package managers that don’t recognise source installs) if you
actually don’t have the necessary code then the install will
fail. To solve this, it is essential to provide developers with a
broad base of functionality that can be depended upon with only
one expressed dependency: a base set
or platform.

The user interface provided by both autopackage and traditional
package managers isn’t best of breed. What should be seamless and
transparent is not: the user is still expected to understand the
distinction between a program and a package, and has to comprehend
the purpose of installation. This means users need to think about
non-obvious questions “Do I keep the package I downloaded around?
Do I still need it after installing it? Can I send it to other
people?”. Drag and drop is not supported. Support for upgrades and
uninstallation is crude and not integrated with the desktop. Many
of these issues affect other platforms like Windows and MacOS X
too, but we should aim high. Solving this means integrating
package management with the desktop so applications become
first-class objects that the user can manipulate just like
documents. The concept of “installation” should fade away and
eventually disappear thanks to seamless desktop integration not
only with autopackage but with all package managers.

Meeting these goals head on will take time, effort and
dedication. At the end, we should have a better system in every
way: more powerful for developers, more flexible for
administrators and simpler for end users. We can raise the bar. We should raise the bar. Let’s get started.


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