Ubuntu Desktop isn’t as popular as it once was, but it serves as the foundation for many other desktop Linux distributions, including a few official spin-offs. However, there’s now a significant change coming to all official Ubuntu derivatives.
Canonical is the primary company behind Ubuntu Linux, but it also develops the Snap format, a container and distribution technology for Linux applications. Snap has proven controversial in the Linux ecosystem, thanks to its centralized design and occasional poor performance. Beyond the reach of Ubuntu, its primary competitor is Flatpak, which many Linux distributions install by default — sometimes alongside Snap, and other times instead of Snap. Some Linux desktops have pushed back harder against Snap, like Linux Mint working directly with Mozilla to offer a non-Snap version of the Firefox browser.
It seems the great package manager wars are not over, as Canonical announced this week that all official Ubuntu derivatives (sometimes called “flavors”) will not install Flatpak by default. The platform will still be available to install with one terminal command, but it’s a notable step backwards in an ecosystem that is usually centered around choice. The change affects all official Ubuntu derivatives: Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu Budgie, Ubuntu Kylin, Ubuntu MATE, Ubuntu Studio, Ubuntu Unity, and Xubuntu.
Canonical said in its announcement, “When a new packaging technology is provided by default, there is an expectation that the distribution provides community support and is invested in contributing to development to resolve issues. This creates fragmentation instead of focusing on improving the technologies chosen for the distribution. To maintain this focus while also providing user choice, Ubuntu and its flavors consider debs and snaps the default experience.” The post was “written and published in collaboration with all Ubuntu flavors.”
The change can certainly be interpreted as Canonical pushing its own app ecosystem over competitors like Flatpak, especially when it has done so in the past. Canonical’s argument isn’t entirely baseless, though. Many apps are available through both Snap and Flatpak, and presenting both choices (in addition to a PPA option, if available) isn’t a great user experience, especially when each version could have different advantages and disadvantages.
Flatpak support will not ship by default in Ubuntu derivatives starting with the April 2023 release, named “Lunar Lobster.” It will remain installed for anyone upgrading from an older version, as long as they’ve used it in the past.