On the road to AppStream 1.0, a lot of items from the long todo list have been done so far – only one major feature is remaining, external release descriptions, which is a tricky one to implement and specify. For AppStream 1.0 it needs to be present or be rejected though, as it would be a major change in how release data is handled in AppStream.
Besides 1.0 preparation work, the recent 0.15 release and the releases before it come with their very own large set of changes, that are worth a look and may be interesting for your application to support. But first, for a change that affects the implementation and not the XML format:
1. Completely rewritten caching code
Keeping all AppStream data in memory is expensive, especially if the data is huge (as on Debian and Ubuntu with their large repositories generated from desktop-entry files as well) and if processes using AppStream are long-running. The latter is more and more the case, not only does GNOME Software run in the background, KDE uses AppStream in KRunner and Phosh will use it too for reading form factor information. Therefore, AppStream via libappstream provides an on-disk cache that is memory-mapped, so data is only consuming RAM if we are actually doing anything with it.
Previously, AppStream used an LMDB-based cache in the background, with indices for fulltext search and other common search operations. This was a very fast solution, but also came with limitations, LMDB’s maximum key size of 511 bytes became a problem quite often, adjusting the maximum database size (since it has to be set at opening time) was annoyingly tricky, and building dedicated indices for each search operation was very inflexible. In addition to that, the caching code was changed multiple times in the past to allow system-wide metadata to be cached per-user, as some distributions didn’t (want to) build a system-wide cache and therefore ran into performance issues when XML was parsed repeatedly for generation of a temporary cache. In addition to all that, the cache was designed around the concept of “one cache for data from all sources”, which meant that we had to rebuild it entirely if just a small aspect changed, like a MetaInfo file being added to
/usr/share/metainfo, which was very inefficient.
To shorten a long story, the old caching code was rewritten with the new concepts of caches not necessarily being system-wide and caches existing for more fine-grained groups of files in mind. The new caching code uses Richard Hughes’ excellent libxmlb internally for memory-mapped data storage. Unlike LMDB, libxmlb knows about the XML document model, so queries can be much more powerful and we do not need to build indices manually. The library is also already used by GNOME Software and fwupd for parsing of (refined) AppStream metadata, so it works quite well for that usecase. As a result, search queries via libappstream are now a bit slower (very much depends on the query, roughly 20% on average), but can be mmuch more powerful. The caching code is a lot more robust, which should speed up startup time of applications. And in addition to all of that, the
AsPool class has gained a flag to allow it to monitor AppStream source data for changes and refresh the cache fully automatically and transparently in the background.
All software written against the previous version of the libappstream library should continue to work with the new caching code, but to make use of some of the new features, software using it may need adjustments. A lot of methods have been deprecated too now.
2. Experimental compose support
Compiling MetaInfo and other metadata into AppStream collection metadata, extracting icons, language information, refining data and caching media is an involved process. The appstream-generator tool does this very well for data from Linux distribution sources, but the tool is also pretty “heavyweight” with lots of knobs to adjust, an underlying database and a complex algorithm for icon extraction. Embedding it into other tools via anything else but its command-line API is also not easy (due to D’s GC initialization, and because it was never written with that feature in mind). Sometimes a simpler tool is all you need, so the libappstream-compose library as well as
appstreamcli compose are being developed at the moment. The library contains building blocks for developing a tool like appstream-generator while the cli tool allows to simply extract metadata from any directory tree, which can be used by e.g. Flatpak. For this to work well, a lot of appstream-generator‘s D code is translated into plain C, so the implementation stays identical but the language changes.
Ultimately, the generator tool will use libappstream-compose for any general data refinement, and only implement things necessary to extract data from the archive of distributions. New applications (e.g. for new bundling systems and other purposes) can then use the same building blocks to implement new data generators similar to appstream-generator with ease, sharing much of the code that would be identical between implementations anyway.
2. Supporting user input controls
Want to advertise that your application supports touch input? Keyboard input? Has support for graphics tablets? Gamepads? Sure, nothing is easier than that with the new
control relation item and
supports relation kind (since 0.12.11 / 0.15.0, details):
<supports> <control>pointing</control> <control>keyboard</control> <control>touch</control> <control>tablet</control> </supports>
3. Defining minimum display size requirements
Some applications are unusable below a certain window size, so you do not want to display them in a software center that is running on a device with a small screen, like a phone. In order to encode this information in a flexible way, AppStream now contains a
display_length relation item to require or recommend a minimum (or maximum) display size that the described GUI application can work with. For example:
<requires> <display_length compare="ge">360</display_length> </requires>
This will make the application require a display length greater or equal to 300 logical pixels. A logical pixel (also device independent pixel) is the amount of pixels that the application can draw in one direction. Since screens, especially phone screens but also screens on a desktop, can be rotated, the
display_length value will be checked against the longest edge of a display by default (by explicitly specifying the shorter edge, this can be changed).
This is a feature that was originally requested for the LVFS/fwupd, but one of the great things about AppStream is that we can take very project-specific ideas and generalize them so something comes out of them that is useful for many. The new
tags tag allows people to tag components with an arbitrary namespaced string. This can be useful for project-internal organization of applications, as well as to convey certain additional properties to a software center, e.g. an application could mark itself as “featured” in a specific software center only. Metadata generators may also add their own tags to components to improve organization. AppStream gives no recommendations as to how these tags are to be interpreted except for them being a strictly optional feature. So any meaning is something clients and metadata authors need to negotiate. It therefore is a more specialized usecase of the already existing
custom tag, and I expect it to be primarily useful within larger organizations that produce a lot of software components that need sorting. For example:
<tags> <tag namespace="lvfs">vendor-2021q1</tag> <tag namespace="plasma">featured</tag> </tags>
This feature is available since 0.15.0, details.
5. MetaInfo Creator changes
The MetaInfo Creator (source) tool is a very simple web application that provides you with a form to fill out and will then generate MetaInfo XML to add to your project after you have answered all of its questions. It is an easy way for developers to add the required metadata without having to read the specification or any guides at all.
Recently, I added support for the new
display_length tags, resolved a few minor issues and also added a button to instantly copy the generated output to clipboard so people can paste it into their project. If you want to create a new MetaInfo file, this tool is the best way to do it!
The creator tool will also not transfer any data out of your webbrowser, it is strictly a client-side application.
And that is about it for the most notable changes in AppStream land! Of course there is a lot more, additional tags for the LVFS and content rating have been added, lots of bugs have been squashed, the documentation has been refined a lot and the library has gained a lot of new API to make building software centers easier. Still, there is a lot to do and quite a few open feature requests too. Onwards to 1.0!