Developing system software

In this page you'll find information on how to develop system software, including how to build it, cross-compile it and make it available to other users. Most of the software preinstalled in your Ubports device is shipped in the device image in the form of a Debian package. This format is used by several Linux distributions (such as Debian, Ubuntu, Mint) and plenty of documentation is available out there on how to work with it, so we won't be covering it here. Besides, in most cases you'll find yourself in need of modifying existing software, rather than developing new packages from scratch; for this reason, this guide is mostly about recompiling an existing Ubports package.

There are essentially three ways of developing Ubports system software: building it directly on device, cross-compiling it or uploading the source code to a Launchpad PPA and have it built by Launchpad. We'll examine all of the three methods, and use address-book-app (the Contacts application) as an example.

Building on the device itself

This is the fastest and simplest method to develop small changes and test them in nearly real-time. Depending on your device resources, however, it might not be possible to follow this path: if you don't have enough free space in your root filesystem you won't be able to install all the package build dependencies; or, your device's RAM might not be enough for the compiler. Assuming that you are lucky enough not to run into these restrictions, and that you don't mind reflashing your device afterwards (to clear it from all the development packages you installed), please read on.

You can ssh to the device (via phablet-shell, for example) and then install all the packages needed to rebuild the component you want to modify (the Contacts app, in this example):

sudo apt-get build-dep address-book-app
sudo apt-get install fakeroot

This will install a bunch of packages into your device's rootfs. Additionally, you probably want to install git in order to get your app's source code in the device and later push your changes back into the repository:

sudo apt-get install git
git clone   # or your own clone
cd address-book-app

Now, you are ready to build the package:

DEB_BUILD_OPTIONS="parallel=2 debug" dpkg-buildpackage -rfakeroot -b

and finally, install it. The dpkg-buildpackage command will print out the list of generated packages, and it's those filenames you will need to pass to the next command:

sudo dpkg -i ../<package>.deb [../<package2>.deb ...]

Note, however, that you might not need to install all the packages: generally, you can skip all packages whose name ends with -doc or dev, since they don't contain code used by the device.

Cross-building with crossbuilder

This is the recommended way to develop non trivial changes, and it's suitable for all devices since the build happens on your desktop PC (will call it "host" from now on) and not on the target device. It's also extremely fast and easy to use.

Start with installing crossbuilder in your host:

git clone

It's a shell script, so you don't need to build it. Instead, you will need to add its directory to your PATH environment variable, so that you can execute it from any directory:

echo "export PATH=$HOME/crossbuilder:$PATH" >> ~/.bashrc
# and add it to your own session:
export PATH="$HOME/crossbuilder:$PATH"

Then, you need to setup LXD; luckily, crossbuilder has a command which does everything for you; you just need to carefully follow its instructions:

crossbuilder setup-lxd

If this is the first time you used LXD, you might need to reboot your host once everything has completed.
After LXD has been setup, using crossbuilder is as easy as it can get: just move to the directory where the source code of your project is (for example, ~/src/git/address-book-app) and launch it like this:

cd ~/src/git/address-book-app
crossbuilder --ubuntu=15.04

Note: if your device is connected to the PC, you don't need to specify the --ubuntu=15.04 parameter because crossbuilder will figure out the proper Ubuntu version by itself. If you don't specify any parameter and have no device connected to your PC, crossbuilder will assume 16.04 (Xenial).

Crossbuilder will do everything for you: it will create the LXD container, download the development image, install all your package build dependencies, perform the build and finally, if your device is connected to your host, it will copy the packages over to the target and install them. The first two steps (creating the LXD image and getting the dependencies) can take a few minutes, but will be executed only the first time you launch crossbuilder for a new package.

Now, whenever you change the source code in your git repository, the same changes will be available inside the container, and the next time you'll type the crossbuilder command, only the changed files will be rebuilt. This makes iterative development blazing fast.

Unit tests

By default crossbuilder does not run unit tests; that's both for speed reasons, and because the container created by crossbuilder is not meant to run native (target) executables: the development tools (qmake/cmake, make, gcc, etc.) are all run in the host architecture, with no emulation (again, for speed reasons). However, qemu emulation is available inside the container, so it should be possible to run unit tests inside the container. You can do that by getting a shell inside the container with

crossbuilder --ubuntu=15.04 shell

and then find the unit tests and execute them. Be aware that the emulation is not perfect, so there's a very good chance that the tests will fail even when they'd otherwise succeed, when run into a proper environment. For that reason, it's probably wiser not to worry about unit tests when working with crossbuilder, and run them only when not cross-compiling.

Developing in the host architecture, deploying via PPA

Another way to develop system software is to develop it locally on your desktop machine, and then push the source code to a Launchpad PPA and have it built there for the armhf architecture. Depending on whether the feature you are developing can be reasonably tested in your local machine, and whether you can wait for Launchpad's builders to start working on your package (this could take some hours), this might or might not be a suitable way of device development.

Note: as of late 2017, Launchpad has dropped support for vivid-based PPAs. So, if you target the current 15.04 Ubports devices, this method is not suitable for you.

Start by getting VirtualBox and an Ubuntu image matching the base image of your device. You can get the Ubuntu image here:

Boot your VirtualBox machine with the Ubuntu image you downloaded, and once the installation is completed and you get to a terminal, add the Stable Phone Overlay PPA like this:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ci-train-ppa-service/stable-phone-overlay
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

You can then install the development tools you need, as well as the build dependencies of the component you want to work on:

sudo apt-get install vim git devscripts
sudo apt-get build-dep address-book-app

and then build the package locally:

DEB_BUILD_OPTIONS="parallel=4 debug" dpkg-buildpackage -rfakeroot -b

Change the parallel option according to how many processor cores you've made available to VirtualBox in order to amximize the build speed. The command above will build your package and also run all unit tests associated with it, so it's an easy (though not sufficient!) way to check that your changes won't break existing functionality. You can now develop your changes and test them locally (though, if your component needs access to phone hardware, that will obviously not work), until you are satisfied with the result.

Once you get to a state where you believe that your changes should work, you can push them into a PPA, so that they'll be built for your Ubports device and you (and other users) will be able to test them. First, create a PPA by visiting; enter a name and a description, then push the Create button, and on the next page pick the "Change details" link near the upper right corner. You can then enable your phone's architecture (with most likelihood, it's "ARM ARMv7 Hard Float"), disable all the architectures you don't care about, and click on "Save". Supposing that your Launchpad username is "ubdeveloper" and the PPA is called "myppa", then the commands to push your changes to the PPA will be as follows:

debuild -S
dput ppa:ubdeveloper/myppa ../address-book-app_*_source.changes

where the exact filename of the .changes file will be printed by the debuild command near the end of its output. Note that in order for the upload to succeed you will need to have a valid GPG key setup, and it must be added to Launchpad. If you are new to this stuff, it's recommended that you carefully read the documentation in Launchpad.

After the package has been uploaded, you should receive an e-mail by launchpad telling you whether the upload was accepted; if it was, then it means that Launchpad will try to build the source package for all the architectures supported by your PPA and, if successful, will finally publish the resulting package(s) in it. Now all what is left to do is to install the packages in your phone: to accomplish that, you can use phablet-shell to get access to your phone, and from there type the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubdeveloper/myppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install <your new package(s)>

You can also give the same installation instructions to other community members, if you want them to test your changes before submitting them upstream for review.

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