This year’s FOSDEM conference was a lot of fun – one of the things I always enjoy most about this particular conference (besides having some of the outstanding food you can get in Brussels and meeting with friends from the free software world) is the ability to meet a large range of new people who I wouldn’t usually have interacted with, or getting people from different communities together who otherwise would not meet in person as each bigger project has their own conference (for example, the amount of VideoLAN people is much lower at GUADEC and Akademy compared to FOSDEM). It’s also really neat to have GNOME and KDE developers within reach at the same place, as I care about both desktops a lot.
An unexpected issue
This blog post however is not about that. It’s about what I learned when talking to people there about AppStream, and the outcome of that. Especially when talking to application authors but also to people who deal with larger software repositories, it became apparent that many app authors don’t really want to deal with the extra effort of writing metadata at all. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as I thought that there would be a strong interest for application authors to make their apps look as good as possible in software catalogs.
A bit less surprising was the fact that people apparently don’t enjoy reading a large specification, reading a long-ish intro guide with lots of dos and don’ts or basically reading any longer text at all before being able to create an AppStream MetaInfo/AppData file describing their software.
Another common problem seems to be that people don’t immediately know what a “reverse-DNS ID” is, the format AppStream uses for uniquely identifying each software component. So naturally, people either have to read about it again (bah, reading! ) or make something up, which occasionally is wrong and not the actual component-ID their software component should have.
The MetaInfo Creator
It was actually suggested to me twice that what people really would like to have is a simple tool to put together a MetaInfo file for their software. Basically a simple form with a few questions which produces the final file. I always considered this a “nice to have, but not essential” feature, but now I was convinced that this actually has a priority attached to it.
So, instead of jumping into my favourite editor and writing a bunch of C code to create this “make MetaInfo file” form as part of
appstreamcli, this time I decided to try what the cool kids are doing and make a web application that runs in your browser and creates all metadata there.
So, behold the MetaInfo Creator! If you click this link, you will end up at an Angular-based web application that will let you generate MetaInfo/AppData files for a few component-types simply by answering a set of questions.
The intent was to make this tool as easy to use as possible for someone who basically doesn’t know anything about AppStream at all. Therefore, the tool will:
- Generate a rDNS component-ID suggestion automatically based on the software’s homepage and name
- Fill out default values for anything it thinks it has enough data for
- Show short hints for what values we expect for certain fields
- Interactively validate the entered value, so people know immediately when they have entered something invalid
- Produce a .desktop file as well for GUI applications, if people select the option for it
- Show additional hints about how to do more with the metadata
- Create some Meson snippets as pointers how people can integrate the MetaInfo files into projects using the Meson build system
For the Meson feature, the tool simply can not generate a “use this and be done” script, as each Meson snippet needs to be adjusted for the individual project. So this option is disabled by default, but when enabled, a few simple Meson snippets will be produced which can be easily adjusted to the project they should be part of.
The tool currently does not generate any release information for a MetaInfo file at all, This may be added in future. The initial goal was to have people create any MetaInfo file in the first place, having projects also ship release details would be the icing on the cake.
I hope people find this project useful and use it to create better MetaInfo files, so distribution repositories and Flatpak repos look better in software centers. Also, since MetaInfo files can be used to create an “inventory” of software and to install missing stuff as-needed, having more of them will help to build smarter software managers, create smaller OS base installations and introspect what software bundles are made of easily.
I welcome contributions to the MetaInfo Creator! You can find its source code on GitHub. This is my first web application ever, the first time I wrote TypeScript and the first time I used Angular, so I’d bet a veteran developer more familiar with these tools will cringe at what I produced. So, scratch that itch and submit a PR! Also, if you want to create a form for a new component type, please submit a patch as well.
C developer’s experience notes for Angular, TypeScript, NodeJS
This section is just to ramble a bit about random things I found interesting as a developer who mostly works with C/C++ and Python and stepped into the web-application developer’s world for the first time.
For a project like this, I would usually have gone with my default way of developing something for the web: Creating a Flask-based application in Python. I really love Python and Flask, but of course using them would have meant that all processing would have had to be done on the server. One the one hand I could have used libappstream that way to create the XML, format it and validate it, but on the other hand I would have had to host the Python app on my own server, find a place at Purism/Debian/GNOME/KDE or get it housed at Freedesktop somehow (which would have taken a while to arrange) – and I really wanted to have a permanent location for this application immediately. Additionally, I didn’t want people to send the details of new unpublished software to my server.
The Angular web framework took a few hours to pick up – there are a lot of concepts to understand. But ultimately, it’s manageable and pretty nice to use. When working at the system level, a lot of complexity is in understanding how the CPU is processing data, managing memory and using the low-level APIs the operating system provides. With the web application stuff, a lot of the complexity for me was in learning about all the moving parts the system is comprised of, what their names are, what they are, and what works with which. And that is not a flat learning curve at all. As C developer, you need to know how the computer works to be efficient, as web developer you need to know a bunch of different tools really well to be productive.
One thing I am still a bit puzzled about is the amount of duplicated HTML templates my project has. I haven’t found a way to reuse template blocks in multiple components with Angular, like I would with Jinja2. The documentation suggests this feature does not exist, but maybe I simply can’t find it or there is a completely different way to achieve the same result.
The MetaInfo Creator application ultimately doesn’t do much. But according to GitHub, it has 985 (!!!) dependencies in NPM/NodeJS. And that is the bare minimum! I only added one dependency myself to it. I feel really uneasy about this, as I prefer the Python approach of having a rich standard library instead of billions of small modules scattered across the web. If there is a bug in one of the standard library functions, I can submit a patch to Python where some core developer is there to review it. In NodeJS, I imagine fixing some module is much harder.
That being said though, using
npm is actually pretty nice – there is a module available for most things, and adding a new dependency is easy. NPM will also manage all the details of your dependency chain, GitHub will warn about security issues in modules you depend on, etc. So, from a usability perspective, there isn’t much to complain about (unlike with Python, where creating or using a module ends up as a “fight the system” event way too often and the question “which random file do I need to create now to achieve what I want?” always exists. Fortunately, Poetry made this a bit more pleasant for me recently).
So, tl;dr for this section: The web application development excursion was actually a lot of fun, and I may make more of those in future, now that I learned more about how to write web applications. Ultimately though, I enjoy the lower-level software development and backend development a bit more.
Check out the MetaInfo Creator and its source code, if you want to create MetaInfo files for a GUI application, console application, addon or service component quickly.