Software Installation Methods

April 21, 2012

For a few years now, i’ve been amazed with how many methods there are for one to install software on his computer (GNU/Linux or Mac OSX).

  • Manual compilation
  • Download binary and put it in place manually
  • Download an installer and let it put the binary in place
  • Work with the package manager of your OS (eg: apt, pacman, yum on linux and fink, macports on OSX)
  • Work with an app store of some sort (Ubuntu Software Center, Mac App Store, …)
  • Various other methods

Let me just sum up some thoughts on every entry.

Manual compilation
This is the most difficult installation methods for non-power users, AND it’s very time-consuming. All dependencies need to be present, a compiler, and the knowledge of how to do it. If you want your software to be installed by a large mainstream population, offering only the source and compile instructions will not be enough. It is, on the other hand a convenient way to distribute software if your program is exclusively for power users, or if it needs every bit of speed and power it can use (since compiling it specifically for your system will make it run extra fast).

Download binary and put it in place manually
This was, until recently, the default installation method for every Mac OSX app. You’d download a compressed disk image (.dmg), mount it, and drag-and-drop the application inside of it to your /Applications directory. It’s quite convenient for installing software, and offers the user control over where to put his app. If this method is used for installing command line programs in /usr/bin or /bin directories, it gets a lot less convenient. You need su or sudo privileges to put it there.

Download an installer and let it put the binary in place
This is my least favorite installation method. You don’t know where the packages are going, and you mostly don’t have control over anything. It makes me think about MS Windows Install exe’s. Examples are the .pkg and .dpkg packages on Mac OSX.

Work with the package manager for your OS
This is a really convenient, and maybe the most convenient, way for users to install software. You look up the package you want to install, the package manager installs it, takes care of the dependencies, updates the software when new versions are released, and can uninstall the package when you want to. It’s mostly a little bit difficult if you want software to be installed on other locations than the defaults. Also, you’re dependent on repositories that other people made, the choose from. On most GNU/Linux systems, this is the preferred way to install software.

Work with an app store of some sort
Mac OSX and Ubuntu both offer an ‘app store’. It’s a convenient way to install and update software (but not to uninstall, on OSX…) for non-power users, and it’s really nice for developers who want to earn money with their apps. The good thing, AND the bad thing about this, is that it’s non-free. Not every application will be allowed in the store (which is, as said previously good and bad at the same time). For developers, it’s handy because the store offers a practical system to earn money for their apps, although Apple takes a percentage of each payment. To me, this is like a package manager for noobs.

Other methods
There are, of course, other methods to install software. Lately i found one i want to talk about. It’s a hybrid between ‘Manually put your binary in place’, and an ‘installer’, to which they added an update mechanism. The way they let you install there software is like this (in a terminal):

curl | sh
or for wget fans:
wget -O - | sh

What this does is this: curl or wget downloads a plaintext webpage, and tunnels the output to the sh program. Sh then interprets the text, which is shell a script that determines the OS, processor architecture, and checks if the meteor application (in this case) is already installed or not. After that, it downloads and installs or updates the right package for your OS and processor architecture. I was really amazed by this because it works on both Mac OSX and Linux, and for a whole lot of architectures, so it’s really cross-platform. Also, as a power user, you can first download the plaintext sh script, read it, make changes, and then run it. Nice.

Of course, there are pro’s and con’s to every item of this list, and i don’t even know which one i prefer. You can always try to persuade me in the comments below.

That’s it! 🙂


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