Flatpak provides a number of different options for how applications can depend on other software. When setting out to build an application with Flatpak for the first time, it is therefore necessary to decide how application dependencies will be organized.
This page outlines what the options are, and provides guidance on when to use each one.
As was described in Basic concepts, runtimes provide basic dependencies that can be used by applications. They also provide the environment that applications run in. Flatpak requires each application to specify a runtime. Therefore, one of the first decisions you need to make when building an application with Flatpak, is which runtime it will use.
An overview of the runtimes that are available can be found in the Available Runtimes page. There are deliberately only a small number of runtimes to choose from. Typically, runtimes are picked on the basis of which dependencies an application requires. If a runtime exists that provides libraries that you plan on using, this is usually the correct runtime to use!
Runtimes require regular maintenance, and application developers should generally not consider creating their own.
Runtimes are automatically installed for users when they install an application, and build tools can also automatically install them for you (
--install-deps-from option is useful for this). However, if you do need to manually install your chosen runtime, this can be done in the same way as installing an application, with the
flatpak install command. For example, the command to install the GNOME 3.26 runtime is:
$ flatpak install flathub org.gnome.Platform//3.26
One of the key advantages of Flatpak is that it allows application authors to bundle whatever libraries or dependencies that they want. This means that developers aren’t constrained by which libraries are available through Linux distributions.
When it comes to building an application for the first time, you will need to decide which dependencies to bundle. This can include:
- libraries that aren’t in your chosen runtime
- different versions of libraries that are in your chosen runtime
- patched versions of libraries
- data or other resources that form part of the application
As will be seen, bundled dependencies can be automatically downloaded as part of the build process. It is also possible to apply patches and perform other transformations.
While bundling is very powerful and flexible, it also places a greater maintenance burden on the application developer. Therefore, while it is possible to bundle as much as you would like, it is generally recommended to try and keep the number of bundled modules as low as possible. If a dependency is available as part of a runtime, it is generally better to use that version rather than bundle it yourself.
The specifics of how to bundle libraries is covered in the Manifests section.
Runtimes and bundling are the two main ways that dependencies are handled with Flatpak. They allow applications to rely on stable collections of dependencies on the one hand, and to have flexibility and control on the other.
However, in some cases, dependencies come as part of a bigger framework or toolkit, which doesn’t fit into a runtime but which is also cumbersome to manually bundle as a series of individual modules. This is where base apps come in.
Base apps contain collections of bundled dependencies which can then be bundled as part of an application. They don’t get rebuilt as part of the build process, which makes building faster (particularly when bundling large dependences). And because each base app is only built once, it is guaranteed to be identical wherever it is used, so it will only be saved once on disk.
Base apps are a relatively specialized concept and only some applications need to use them (the most common base app is used for Electron applications). However, if your application uses a large, complex or specialized framework, it is a good idea to check for available base apps before you start building.