Linux in a World of Web Apps

THERE ARE FEW THINGS more frus­trat­ing than re­al­iz­ing a key ap­pli­ca­tion has no Linux sup­port. In a world where Ap­pI­mage and Elec­tron ex­ist, ven­dors don’t have ex­cuses any­more.

Maximum PC - - QUICKSTART - Alex Camp­bell

The past few years have seen a big shift in the way com­puter ap­pli­ca­tions are used. Long gone are the days when you had to go to a lo­cal com­puter store to buy a CD or stack of diskettes to be able to write up doc­u­ments or do your taxes. Sure, you can still buy tax soft­ware in a store, but it’s more likely that you’ll down­load the soft­ware or use a web ap­pli­ca­tion.

As more popular ap­pli­ca­tions move to web in­ter­faces, Elec­tron has be­come a dom­i­nant method of dis­play­ing web views in a way that makes ap­pli­ca­tions ap­pear na­tive, by us­ing Chromium’s ren­der­ing en­gine. Slack, for ex­am­ple, makes use of Elec­tron to ren­der its web ap­pli­ca­tion with­out the over­head of a full browser. The popular text edi­tor Atom uses Elec­tron as its base as well.

One might won­der why an Elec­tron app is bet­ter than nav­i­gat­ing to the app in a browser. Glad you asked. One of the main fea­tures is the abil­ity to store data for off­line use. Also, an Elec­tron app has its own win­dow, and won’t get mixed up with the 40 other tabs you have open in Chrome or Fire­fox.

There are bad things about Elec­tron, though. The main com­plaint is that in­stead of of­fer­ing off­line or desk­top-spe­cific ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Elec­tron apps can be half-assed wrap­pers for a web ap­pli­ca­tion. The other com­plaint is that some Elec­tron apps can be quite heavy when it comes to mem­ory use.

Even with the short­falls, I still be­lieve well­writ­ten and im­ple­mented Elec­tron apps are a step for­ward for the Linux desk­top. I feel some of you star­ing. Let me ex­plain.

For as long as most Linux users can re­mem­ber, ma­jor soft­ware ven­dors have steered clear of of­fer­ing Linux ver­sions of their ap­pli­ca­tions. One of the main rea­sons for this is the frag­men­ta­tion of the Linux desk­top. First, a ven­dor has to de­velop a Linux ver­sion of the app, then tar­get a spe­cific GUI li­brary (such as GTK or Qt), and pack­age it for a spe­cific dis­tri­bu­tion. All of that, of course, takes re­sources and time that may not be worth the ef­fort. It was an easy cop-out that’s also an easy way to have com­plaints from Linux users go away.

Frag­men­ta­tion and de­vel­op­ment cost are big rea­sons Linux doesn’t have of­fi­cial desk­top ver­sions of ap­pli­ca­tions such as Ever­note or OneNote. So­lu­tions ex­ist, but might be im­per­fect: Wave­box runs web apps in a sin­gle ap­pli­ca­tion, but costs $20 per year if you want to add more than two Google ac­counts.

With Elec­tron and dis­tri­bu­tion­ag­nos­tic pack­ag­ing for­mats such as Ap­pI­mage, th­ese ar­gu­ments don’t hold true any­more. With Ap­pI­mage, the ven­dor has just one pack­age for­mat to con­sider, and they can be sure that the app will run on the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of rea­son­ably mod­ern Linux desk­tops. Ap­pI­mages are user­friendly to peo­ple who are used to down­load­ing an app for Win­dows or Mac OS. With an Ap­pI­mage, all you do is down­load the file, set the per­mis­sion of the file to ex­e­cutable, then dou­ble-click the file to run it.

With this tech­nol­ogy avail­able to app de­vel­op­ers, there is lit­tle rea­son to avoid the Linux desk­top any­more. Com­pa­nies such as Ever­note (I’ll pick on that for now) have long re­sisted de­vel­op­ing for Linux, cit­ing de­vel­op­ment ef­fort and frag­men­ta­tion. Third-party de­vel­op­ers stepped up to cob­ble to­gether Elec­tron wrap­pers for web ap­pli­ca­tions. (Tusk is a good ex­am­ple of an Ever­note Elec­tron app avail­able as an Ap­pI­mage.) There is no rea­son ven­dors couldn’t do the same—or, bet­ter yet, con­trib­ute code to those projects.

Both Elec­tron and Ap­pI­mage rep­re­sent a path of least re­sis­tance to pub­lish­ing apps on Linux. Go­ing for­ward, say­ing “Linux users can use the web ap­pli­ca­tion” isn’t ac­cept­able any­more. Ven­dors, you can do bet­ter.

Third-party de­vel­op­ers stepped up to cob­ble to­gether Elec­tron wrap­pers for web apps. Why can’t ven­dors do the same?

Alex Camp­bell is a Linux geek who en­joys learn­ing about com­puter se­cu­rity.

Tusk, an Elec­tron-based Ap­pI­mage app run­ning on the GNOME desk­top.

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