Rich0's Gentoo Blog

Control Over Application Distribution

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I was giving some thought to something that flameeyes wrote regarding quality control and application distribution, and rather than a condensed comment I thought I’d elaborate a little on my thoughts.

Before reading on, I’d encourage you to read what he wrote, as I think he gets a lot of things right.

However, where I’d like to add something is where we get into providing a complete platform vs providing a particular user experience built on a platform. What is the difference? Well, let’s take android as an easy example.

Android is a platform, which is open source, although developed arguably in a less than open manner. The Google branded phones are a particular user experience built on the Android platform. There is a certain tendency for users to confuse the two, which is what leads to shouts of “foul” when Google does something to their Market.

The Google Market is not part of Android, so in a sense their control over the Market is part of improving the user experience, and doesn’t reflect a lack of openness on the platform.

The problem with this is that if you look at the platform as ONLY being Android, then the platform turns out to be fairly lacking. Android actually has no package distribution and management system at all. That means that absent the Market all you have is some odd 3rd party clones of the market or the ability to do a one-time install of apks from a website/etc, none of which are really filling the need for a package manager.

How do other platforms handle this? Well, let’s look at Ubuntu, which delivers both a platform, and a default user experience built upon it. In their case, the user experience is really nothing more than a particular default configuration of the platform. In Ubuntu (and most popular linux distros, certainly including Gentoo) the package manager is part of the platform – not the experience. The package manager is open source, and while Ubuntu controls access to their repository, they do not control the package manager. If users want to use another repository (or create their own) they need only add a URL to their package manager, and the new repository gets seamlessly merged into the package database – perhaps with even greater priority than Ubuntu’s official repository if so configured.

If Google’s market operated in the same manner, then it would be part of the platform, and the experience is the quality assurance they provide to it. I think we’d see fewer complaints in this case. The problem is that Google does not allow users to configure their market to include apps published from alternate sources, which means that since Android doesn’t provide a package manager that users effectively have no way to address this capability gap.

Then if you look at the fact that many phone distributors disable parts of the platform, such as the ability to install apps via sources other than the market, you compound the issue.

I see the situation with mozilla in the same way. As long as a mozilla product user can install an extension from any number of sources and receive automatic updates of this extension, then I have no issue with mozzila providing a default experience that has a level of QA. If, on the other hand, mozilla designs their products so that you can only install extensions from their site, or only extensions from their site receive automatic updates/etc, then they’re essentially limiting their platform to intentionally constrain users to have a particular experience.

This is a debate that has also raged on the Gentoo mailing lists. Different people have different attitudes towards QA, and as a result we have a plethora of overlays in Gentoo that provide levels of QA that are different from the official policy. This has the downside of fragmenting development work, and the upside of taking advantage of the flexibility of the platform.

What do you think? What is the best way to provide the best of both worlds? How can a platform provide a “just right” level of QA filtering appropriate for every end user?

Written by rich0

July 20, 2010 at 10:57 am

Posted in linux

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