Runtimes are a core part of the flatpak design. They are a way to make bundling feasible, while still fully isolating from the host system. Application authors can bundle the libraries specific to the application, but don’t have to care about the lowlevel dependencies that are uninteresting (yet important) for the application.
Many people think of runtimes primarily as a way to avoid duplication (and thus bloat). However, they play two other important roles. First of all they allow an independent stream of updates for core libraries, so even dead apps get fixes. And secondly, they allow the work of the bundling to be shared between all application authors.
There are some runtimes bases on pre-existing distribution packages, such as Fedora and Debian. These are very useful if you want to produce flatpaks of the packages from these distributions. However, most of the “native” Flatpaks these days are based on the Freedesktop 1.6 runtime or one of its derivates (like the Gnome and KDE runtimes).
Unfortunately this runtime is starting to show its age.
The freedesktop runtime is built in two steps. The first is based on Yocto, which is a cross-compilation system maintained by the Linux Foundation. An image is created from this build which is then further extended using flatpak-builder. This was a great way to get something going initially. However, Yocto focuses mainly on cross compilation and embedded which isn’t a great fit, and the weird 2 layer split and the complex yocto build files lead to very few people being able to build or do any work on the runtime. It also didn’t help that the build system was a bunch of crappy scripts that needed a lot of handholding by me.
Fortunately this is now getting much better, because today the new Freedesktop runtime, version 18.08, was released!
This runtime has the same name, and its content is very similar, but it is really a complete re-implementation. It is based on a new build system called BuildStream, which is much nicer and a great fit for flatpak. So, no more Yocto, no more buildbake, no multi-layer builds!
Additionally, it has an entire group of people working on it, including support from Codethink. Its already using gitlab, with automatic builds, CI, etc, etc. There is also a new release model (year.month) with a well-defined support time. Also, all the packages are much newer!
Gnome is also looking at using this as the basics for its releases, its CI system and eventually the Gnome runtime.
The old freedesktop runtime is dead, long live the freedesktop runtime!