Developing With The Flatpak CLI

Flatpak is a very powerful tool for development, and is well-integrated into GNOME Builder. This is what I’d recommend for most developers. But what if you use a plain text editor? Barring Visual Studio Code, there aren’t many extensions for common text editors to use flatpak. This tutorial will go over how to use flatpak to build and test your apps with only the command line.

Building & Testing Your App

First, you’ll need to have flatpak installed and a flatpak manifest. You’ll also need the right runtime and SDK installed. Then, you’ll need to set up the environment to build your application. Navigate to your project directory from the terminal. Once there run the following command:

# $MODULE_NAME is the name of your application's flatpak module
$ flatpak-builder --repo=repo --build-only --stop-at=$MODULE_NAME --force-clean flatpak_app $APP_ID.json

This will fetch all the dependencies declared in the flatpak manifest and build each one, stopping with your app. Then, you need to use flatpak build to run the build commands for your application.

First you configure the buildsystem:

# $CONFIG_OPTS should match the `config-opts` for the module in your flatpak manifest
$ flatpak build --filesystem=host flatpak_app meson _build --prefix=/app $CONFIG_OPTS

Then run the build & install command:

# $BUILD_OPTS should match the build-options in the flatpak manifest.
# `append-path` turns into `--env=PATH=$PATH:$APPEND_PATH`
$ flatpak build --filesystem=host $BUILD_OPTS flatpak_app ninja -C _build install

After that, you can also use flatpak build to test the application:

# $FINISH_ARGS would be the `finish-args` from your flatpak manifest
$ flatpak build --filesystem=host $FINISH_ARGS flatpak_app $APP_EXECUTABLE_NAME

Creating Dist Tarballs

One of the responsibilities an app maintainer has is creating tarballs of their applications for distribution. This can be challenging, as the maintainer needs to build using an environment that has all dependencies – including versions of dependencies that aren’t yet released.

Flatpak allows for developers to do this in a simple way. If you haven’t run the
command above to fetch and build your dependencies, do so now.
Also run the configuration step. Now you should be ready to run the dist command:

$ flatpak build --filesystem=host flatpak_app ninja -C _build dist

Now you should have a release tarball ready in _build/meson-dist.

Notes

While this method works for development, it’s a bit clumsy. I highly recommend using GNOME Builder or Visual Studio Code with the flatpak extension. These tools handle the clumsiness for you, allowing you to focus entirely on development. However, if you find yourself wanting to develop using flatpak and don’t want to use either of the above options, this is the way to do so.

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