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The rocky road to better Linux software installation • The Register

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Analysis Linux cross-platform packaging format Flatpak has come under the spotlight this week, with the “fundamental problems inherent in [its] design” criticised in a withering post by Canadian software dev Nicholas Fraser.

Fraser wrote in a blog published on 23 November that “these are not the future of desktop Linux apps,” citing a litany of technical, security and usability problems. His assertions about disk usage and sharing of runtimes between apps were hotly disputed by Will Thompson, director of OS at Endless OS Foundation a day later in a post titled: “On Flatpak disk usage and deduplication,” but there is no denying it is horribly inefficient.

Most people don’t care about that any more, one could argue. But they should.

The Linux world has been trying to invent a cross-platform packaging format for years, but leading contenders – the older, vendor-neutral older, AppImage format as well as Ubuntu’s Snap and Fedora’s Flatpak – all have serious issues.

They may be revolutionary and mean Linux becomes easier to develop for, but it’s enough of a mess that some mainstream distros avoid the whole thing.

In comparison, installing software on Windows is easy. Download an installer, run it, and you have a new app. The snags are that it means trusting unknown binaries from the internet – and that it teaches Windows users that this is fine and a perfectly normal thing to do.

Plain Win32 programs have unfettered access to your computer. This is why Microsoft invented the Windows Store: it would contain only safe, vetted, approved, “modern” apps written in “managed code“. (And of course Microsoft got to keep a cut of the revenues.)

The plan hit a few problems, and in the end Win32 apps were allowed in too.

How about them Apples

It’s not unfair to say that everyone is trying to catch up with Apple. Not the App Store – that’s indispensable (and extremely lucrative) on iOS, but you can pretty much ignore it on a Mac, if you wish. No, the target is macOS’s .app application bundles, which macOS inherited from its 1989 ancestor NeXTstep – although they’re usually delivered in a classic MacOS-style .dmg disk image file.

Applications on macOS are a specially structured folder, containing all of the program’s supporting “resources” and compiled binaries for as many CPU architectures as the app creator supports. It works pretty well, but not without snags. For instance, there’s no global way to update all your apps (unless you got them from the App Store). Apps tend to be big – but that’s fine, because if you can afford Macs, you can afford a big disk and fast broadband, right?

Ironically, Linux could easily have had much the same because all the functionality already exists in GNUstep, the venerable FOSS rewrite of NeXTstep’s core libraries. Unfortunately, no mainstream Linux uses the GNUstep desktop, and the Étoilé project to modernise it and make it a bit more Mac-like is moribund. The superficially Mac-like Elementary OS would have been richer and more capable if its developers had started from Étoilé or GNUstep, but they didn’t – it’s just a facelift for GNOME 3, like Mint’s Cinnamon and Zorin OS.

A lot of the developers behind Flatpak are from the GNOME and Fedora communities, or their corporate backer Red Hat, but it’s a desktop-independent effort and comes installed by default on some Debian and Ubuntu derivatives. It uses Red Hat technologies such as OStree to manage binaries in a similar way to Git.

Somewhere deep within your OS is a complex directory tree full of your Flatpak applications and all their dependencies, as opposed to somewhere in full view where you can interact with it, as on macOS or GNUstep.

Rather than a macOS-style directory full of files, Ubuntu’s Snap format compresses an application and all its dependencies into a single, compressed SquashFS file, which is loop-mounted as the system boots.

Flatpak and Snap have a fair bit in common. Both keep your apps inside /var/lib (although Snap makes them visible at /snaps, and Flatpak will let you install into your home directory if you prefer). Both require you to install a supporting framework. Both do some degree of sandboxing of apps, but aren’t as secure as their publicity might lead you to believe. Both do things like run silent automatic scheduled updates in the background, in a very Windowsy fashion – bad news if you’re on a metered connection. It also means that if you update your OS with a shell command, then these apps won’t be included.

The AppImage format has similar pros and cons to macOS’ app bundles – such as lacking a global update mechanism – because it grew out of tech of a similar age. AppImage’s developer took the ROX Desktop‘s AppDirs and put each one inside a SquashFS (which probably inspired the Snap developers). ROX and AppDir are FOSS recreations of Acorn’s RISC OS, which appeared slightly before NeXTstep in 1987. It needs no supporting frameworks and you can keep your AppImages anywhere you like.

All three share a weakness in that they include almost all of an application’s supporting libraries and other dependencies in its package, so packages tend to be very large – in the order of hundreds of megabytes – and so do updates. Installing large Linux apps from the command line generally takes in the region of seconds to tens of seconds, but installing a Snap or Flatpak, even on a fast connection, can take many minutes – and of course ignores any local mirrors you may have configured for your distro’s built-in package manager.

Endless’s Thompson makes a good point, though. Flatpak’s format allows something single-file formats can’t do: if files in different Flatpaks are identical, OStree can reduce duplication by hard-linking them together… although in principle, a smart enough filesystem could do the same at the block level.

What’s next?

There are alternative cross-distro systems. Several avoid installing apps into the OS at all, and just fetch them off the internet into your home directory when needed. Examples include 0install, from the developer of the ROX Desktop. That inspired AppFS – which does something similar to CERN’s unrelated CernVM-FS. And then there are functional package managers, which are a whole other type of software-management tool which we’ll come back to in another article. Suffice it to say there are multiple vendor-neutral ways of distributing Linux software that predate the big three. All of them are lighter-weight, more efficient, the packages are generally much smaller, and all are seriously obscure and you’ll never encounter them in a mainstream distro.

Naturally, because of the rampant Not Invented Here Syndrome of the Linux industry, all of these systems totally ignore one another. Which does at least have the benefit that you can install most of them side-by-side on the same OS and try them out, with no real penalties except using a lot of disk space. But at least that’s cheap these days.

There are so many alternatives vying for space that it’s hard to pick winners. This is partly due to rivals building their own tools rather than cooperating, and partly because there’s almost no money to be made from desktop Linux, only servers – so there’s little investment, and engineers’ occasionally sketchy prototypes end up getting shipped.

What does seem likely is that the lean, efficient but daringly unconventional tech won’t go anywhere, while the inefficient and space-hungry variants will be pushed heavily and widely used.

This being so, AppImage probably won’t get much bigger, because it doesn’t have a big company behind it. Ubuntu’s Snap system has some advantages over GNOME’s Flatpak, such as being useful on servers and so on… but Ubuntu runs the only Snap Store, and the only open-source back-end is obsolete and has been deleted.

By contrast, Flatpak, by its own admission, is a desktop tool – but anyone can host their own repos, and several already exist.

With Red Hat’s considerable clout behind it, Flatpak’s chances look good. But whoever wins, in time we’ll probably have to get used to distros occupying terabytes of disk and need hundreds of gigs of regular updates… and the memories of the small, efficient systems that went before will be lost to history. Isn’t progress great? ®

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Why Intel’s latest chip factory news gives us deja vu • The Register

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Comment Intel puts on a show for its biggest manufacturing announcements, with episodes every few years using a rotating cast of CEOs and US presidents.

Intel boss Pat Gelsinger and President Joe Biden were the latest to join the series, on Friday jointly announcing the chip maker’s investment of $20bn in plants near Columbus, Ohio. The fabs could be operational by 2025 and make chips down to 2nm and beyond.

“This is our first major site announcement in 40 years,” Gelsinger said on on-stage later in the day with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R).

“Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America,” DeWine said.

Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America

Intel has previously wheeled out chief executives and commanders-in-chief to announce the plowing of billions into factories, with the presidents using the events to highlight the bump in manufacturing and jobs for the United States. But the aftermath has been littered with unfulfilled promises and failed goals, partially due to Intel’s sometimes incoherent manufacturing and product strategies.

This time around, Gelsinger has identified manufacturing as a major growth driver, as part of his Integrated Device Manufacturing 2.0 strategy. Intel has promised to expand its contract manufacturing in a meaningful way, fabricating components that use the non-x86 Arm and RISC-V architectures, and signed on Qualcomm, a semiconductor rival, as a foundry customer.

Intel’s latest $20bn commitment will be used to build two plants on a 1,000-acre site that could be expanded to up to 2,000 acres and eight fabs. The site will employ 3,000 folks with an average salary of $135,000, and also bring 7,000 construction jobs to Ohio, DeWine said.

You can’t fault Gelsinger for announcing the factories: his shareholders and the world, amid a chip supply crunch, expect it. But not only should the news be seen in an historical context, it remains to be seen if Intel can meet the promises it laid out for the Ohio facilities.

In 2011, then-CEO Paul Otellini announced Intel was investing $5bn to complete Fab 42 when President Barack Obama visited an Intel facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. At the time, Fab 42 was to make 14nm chips, including smartphone processors, and create 4,000 jobs.

Ultimately, the announcement turned out to be a false promise. Intel cancelled completion of Fab 42 in 2014 after manufacturing woes and blunders in markets including mobile devices. In 2016, Intel laid off 12,000 employees to prioritize its products in the data center and the Internet of Things markets.

In 2017, then-CEO Brian Krzanich repeated the pledge to complete Fab 42, this time repackaged as a fresh announcement with President Donald Trump. Intel said it would invest $7bn to complete Fab 42 to make 7nm chips.

Intel powered up Fab 42 in Arizona in late 2020 to make not 7nm but 10nm chips. That’s the process node that was delayed for years due to critical fabrication missteps, causing Intel to lose its manufacturing lead over TSMC and Samsung.

Chipzilla hopes to do better on its commitments with Gelsinger, who wants to bring Intel back to its engineering roots.

Intel in September broke ground on more factories in Arizona, which carry a $20bn price tag. Work is also underway on manufacturing expansions in Oregon and New Mexico, and overseas in Ireland.

There’s a growing need to commit capacity to foundry customers, and to meet the higher demand for the company’s chips, an Intel spokesman told The Register in an email.

Gelsinger has stressed the “importance of building a more resilient supply chain and ensure reliable access to advanced semiconductors in the US for years to come. Today’s announcement is a critical step in our plans to fulfill these objectives,” the Intel spokesman said. ®

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MEPs give green light to take on Big Tech

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The draft DSA measures include tackling illegal content and holding social media platforms accountable for their algorithms.

The European Parliament has voted in favour of the long-debated Digital Services Act (DSA), Europe’s attempt to shift the balance of power from the hands of Big Tech and into the hands of EU residents.

MEPs voted 530 votes to 78 – with 80 abstentions – to approve the draft DSA text that will see tech giants held accountable for content on their platforms in a spate of new rules and regulations.

The move comes just a month after MEPs voted in favour of the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a similar set of proposed laws that seek to impose stricter rules around tech competition in the EU and rein in the monopoly large multinationals hold in Europe’s digital space.

The set of draft DSA measures include tackling illegal content, preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and holding social media platforms accountable for their algorithms.

The Parliament introduced several changes to the initial proposal by the European Commission, including exempting small businesses from certain DSA obligations, making targeted advertising more transparent and easier to refuse, and prohibiting targeted ads for minors.

Online platforms will be prohibited from using “deceiving or nudging techniques to influence users’ behaviour through ‘dark patterns’”, according to the revised DSA draft. Large platforms will also be required to provide “at least one recommender system that is not based on profiling”.

The approved text will now be used as the mandate to negotiate with the French presidency of the Council, representing member states. The negotiation will be led by Christel Schaldemose, an MEP from Denmark.

“Today’s vote shows MEPs and EU citizens want an ambitious digital regulation fit for the future,” she said after the vote. “Online platforms have become increasingly important in our daily life, bringing new opportunities, but also new risks,” she added.

Schaldemose said it was the duty of the European Union to make sure “what is illegal offline is illegal online” and that new digital rules need to benefit consumer and citizens, not Big Tech.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen had hailed the DSA as a potential “global gold standard” in government regulation of Big Tech in her address to the European Parliament last November.

She said that, if enacted and enforced correctly, the DSA has the potential to inspire other nations such as the US to take on Big Tech and “safeguard democracy” before it’s too late.

“Every modern disinformation campaign will exploit news media channels on digital platforms by gaming the system,” Haugen told MEPs in her opening statement. “If the DSA makes it illegal for platforms to address these issues, we risk undermining the effectiveness of the law,” she said.

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Dangerous game? Football clubs look to mine fans’ cash with crypto offerings | Cryptocurrencies

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When FC Barcelona took to the pitch for the 2021 Spanish Super Cup final, the trophy wasn’t the only prize at stake.

Thousands of blaugrana fans were also keeping an eye on the market for FCB’s “fan token”, the club’s very own cryptocurrency. Socios, the web-based platform that pioneered fan tokens, had promised to “burn” 20,000 tokens for every goal Barcelona scored – and 40,000 if they lifted the cup.

In theory, success on the pitch would increase the scarcity of the currency, boosting its value. In practice, Barcelona lost the game and, footballing passions aside, it didn’t make much difference anyway. With 3.5m of the tokens in circulation, not to mention millions more retained by the club for future issuance, a few thousand here or there wouldn’t have moved the needle.

Q&A

What is cryptocurrency?

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Cryptocurrencies are an alternative way of making payments to cash or credit cards. The technology behind it allows the ‘money’ to be sent directly to others without it having to pass through the banking system. For that reason they are outside the control of governments and are unregulated by financial watchdogs – and transactions can be made in a way that keeps you reasonably pseudonymous.

If you own a crypto-asset you control a secret digital key that you can use to prove to anyone on the network that a certain amount of that asset is yours. If you spend it, you tell the entire network that you have transferred ownership of it, and use the same key to prove that you are telling the truth. Over time, the history of all those transactions becomes a lasting record of who owns what: that record is called the blockchain.

Bitcoin was one of the first and biggest cryptocurrencies and has been on a wild ride since its creation in 2009, sometimes surging in value as investors have piled in – and occasionally crashing back down. Dogecoin – which started as a joke – has also seen a stratospheric rise in value.

Sceptics warn that the lack of central control make crypto-assets ideal for criminals and terrorists, while libertarian monetarists enjoy the idea of a currency with no inflation and no central bank.

The whole concept of cryptocurrencies has been criticised for its ecological impact, with “mining” for new coins requiring vast energy reserves and the associated carbon footprint of the whole system.

Richard Partington and Martin Belam

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But the stunt symbolised something more, the burgeoning love affair between football and cryptocurrency, an alliance that holds the promise of new revenue streams for a game that is already awash with cash but always wants more.

Football finance expert Kieran Maguire thinks clubs have latched on to crypto because revenues from other sources are starting to level off, having risen reliably for decades.

“Football clubs have realised that we’re now at max broadcast revenues, with modest growth at most to look forward to,” he said.

“As far as commercial sponsors are concerned, we’re seeing deals being renewed but not with increased money. The only way to increase matchday sales is to increase prices and fans are reluctant.”

Manchester United – whether one believes the club or not – claims to have 1.1 billion fans on the planet. With revenue of £488m in 2019-20, that’s just 45p per year, per fan.

“Clubs are thinking: ‘Can we ‘find another way of extracting money out of that huge fanbase?’ That’s where tokens come in.”

When AC Milan launched a token in early 2021, it raised $6m (£4.4m) in under an hour, or about 12% of the value of the club’s record signing, Leonardo Bonucci. Paris Saint-Germain’s token, the most valuable, has a market value of $45m.

In the murky and unregulated world of crypto though, it’s hard to know how much clubs are actually making. Socios said last year it had sold $300m worth of fan tokens but would not say how much of that went to the clubs with which it partnered.

Other platforms, such as Binance, are also moving into the fan token market, indicating there is room for growth, particularly given that only a few dozen clubs have entered the market in any meaningful way.

Pedro Herrera, senior blockchain analyst at DappRadar, a marketplace for blockchain-related apps, said that most fans buy tokens for the associated perks, such as votes on small decisions about which song to play over the stadium tannoy after a goal, or entry into a draw to win a signed shirt.

“It’s a win for the fan because they feel more involved; it’s a win for the team because it’s adding a layer of monetisation; and it’s a win for the [crypto] industry because you attract the masses and it’s one step closer to mass adoption.”

Maguire isn’t against crypto but adds a more sceptical tone: “Lots of fans love crypto and in its purest form it’s great. Banks have been overcharging people for years in terms of transaction fees and if crypto can reduce those fees that’s fantastic.”

“The problem is when unscrupulous traders, particularly via social media, seek to exploit fans who think a token is a serious investment product, rather than a glorified collectible.

“It’s magic beans. So long as it’s sold as a digital Panini card, it’s OK. But when it’s being seen as a form of investment, it’s moving into uncomfortable territory.”

“It’s unregulated, it’s volatile and it’s subject to manipulation by people who own large amounts of the asset.”

Fan tokens, though, are a mere paragraph in football’s rapidly unfolding crypto saga.

In 2021, crypto sponsors piled into football and were welcomed with open arms by cash-hungry clubs, leagues and players.

Watford player with stake.com shirt
Watford have perhaps England’s biggest crypto deal, a front-of-shirt sponsorship from Stake.com, which offers crypto gambling. Photograph: Tess Derry/PA

Exchange app Crypto.com sponsors Italy’s Serie A, one of the world’s most glamorous leagues, while Socios is Internazionale’s shirt sponsor. EToro, a trading platform that facilitates investment in multiple cryptocurrencies, has deals with more than half of the clubs in the Premier League.

Southampton players are understood to have been offered the option to be paid bonuses in bitcoin, as part of a £7.5m-a-year deal with Coingaming Group. And in January 2021, striker David Barral made history when he became the first player in a major league to be signed with bitcoin, albeit in Spain’s third tier with Internacional de Madrid.

Much better-known players and ex-pros, such as Paul Pogba and John Terry, are promoting cryptocurrencies, trading platforms and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – the controversial digital art form – too.

This should come as no surprise given the reach that big-name stars have via social media and the money they can make from promotions. Other partnerships are perhaps more unexpected. Visitors to the Twitter profile of former Republic of Ireland international Tony Cascarino might have been wrongfooted by the former striker’s sudden change of pace midway through 2021. One moment he was musing on the latest developments in the Premier League, the next he was evangelising about blockchain bank Babb (no relation to former Ireland teammate Phil) and musing that the “crypto market is on fire”.

Even in its infancy, the reputational risks of this new commercial pact between crypto and football have become all too clear. Last year, Manchester City’s deal with a mysterious firm called 3Key Technologies fell apart in a matter of days as it emerged that nobody seemed to know anything about the company or its executives.

Arsenal FC ad promoting fan tokens
The Advertising Standards Authority banned Arsenal FC ads promoting fan tokens. Photograph: ASA/PA

In December, Arsenal were rapped on the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which banned a club promotion that it said was exploiting fans’ “inexperience or credulity, trivialising investment in crypto assets, misleading consumers over the risk of investment and not making it clear the ‘token’ was a crypto asset”.

“For those in sport looking for sponsorship, it’s a whole new market of opportunity but it’s a bit of a landmine you’re dealing with,” said Bill Esdaile, managing director of sports marketing agency Square in the Air.

“My gut feeling is that such a small percentage of people understand how [crypto] works that too many decisions are made on trust, thinking that if [crypto firms] say they’ve got the money, they do.”

The amounts on offer appear to be going up.

Premier League strugglers Watford have perhaps the country’s biggest crypto deal, a front-of-shirt sponsorship from Stake.com. The site offers crypto gambling, which isn’t legal in the UK but may appeal to the league’s hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.

The arrangement even means that Watford players’ shirt sleeves bear the logo of Dogecoin, a “joke” currency whose value swings around wildly, often in response to tweets by Tesla multibillionaire Elon Musk.

Kieran Maguire estimates that the shirt deal could be worth up to £8m, based on the typical value of such partnerships, while an insider at Watford told MSN in August that the Dogecoin sleeve display added £700,000 into the mix.

Sums like these will become increasingly difficult for clubs to ignore, he thinks, particularly if the government goes ahead with a root-and-branch overhaul of gambling regulation that could see football lose the cash cow of shirt deals with betting firms.

“They [clubs] see the token market as slightly to one side, it won’t get picked up by the gambling review and it will help fill the gap,” says Maguire.

“Those deals of £5m to £8m could be replaced by NFT advertising and by crypto.”

In a recent paper, psychology researcher and gambling expert Dr Phil Newall warned that football sponsorship may be about to swap one risky product for another.

“Research has found that cryptocurrency traders are likely to have problem gambling symptoms, and has identified psychological similarities between cryptocurrency trading and online sports betting,” wrote Newall. He believes removing gambling advertising may create more space in which to legitimise equally dangerous products.

As they burn through cash in the pursuit of glory, it seems unlikely that clubs will worry about that.

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