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September 23, 2009
I’ve spent the last few weeks testing Ubuntu One, Canonical’s file-storing and sharing service. Below is an outline of my experience, and thoughts on the future of the application.
Ubuntu One, which will be installed by default in Ubuntu 9.10, allows users to sync files between different Ubuntu computers. The service runs in the background, and can be accessed either through a Web interface in Firefox or via the Nautilus file browser, with which it seamlessly integrates.
Users have to register accounts on Launchpad in order to use Ubuntu One. Currently, Canonical offers either 2 gigabytes of storage in the cloud for free, or 10 gigabytes for 10 dollars/8 euros per month.
For a service that remains in beta, Ubuntu One works exceptionally well. Its strongest points include:
Easy installation: it took only a few clicks and one gksudo to install the service on my Ubuntu 9.04 systems from the website. My only complaint is that the apt:// link didn’t work on one computer where I’d upgraded the browser to Firefox 3.5 using a third-party package–not Canonical’s fault, but situations like this should be taken into account in order to ensure ease of use.
The service has worked great, even when I’ve had a flaky Internet connection. I was skeptical about its ability to keep things in sync and stable, but both the Web and Nautilus interfaces have been so smooth and responsive that I often forget my files are hosted in the cloud rather than the local file system. I receive a convenient notification when a new file upload has completed, and the system deals well with intermittent Internet connections.
Unfortunately, Ubuntu One also currently has some glaring problems, namely:
Only Ubuntu 9.04 and later are supported, meaning users of LTS releases are out of luck, at least for now.
More importantly, there’s no cross-platform support: the Ubuntu One service works only on Ubuntu. That’s great if you never have to use Windows or OS X, but few people enjoy that liberty. Granted, a Web interface is available for accessing and uploading files from any computer, but this approach is not well suited to intensive work. In principle, someone could implement the service on other operating systems, but neither Canonical nor any third party has announced such an endeavor.
Much of the Ubuntu One code is not open source, which is a turn off for some free-software purists, as well as people concerned about security and privacy. But Canonical has a history of developing code in-house and opening it when it has sufficiently matured, so Ubuntu One’s closed-source status is likely temporary.
The elephant in the room for Ubuntu One is Dropbox, which does almost exactly the same thing, for the same price, but works on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. Until Canonical addresses the interoperability issue, Ubuntu One will remain at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis Dropbox.
That aside, the service’s pre-installed status in Ubuntu 9.10 does provide it a major edge over Dropbox and other competitors. If there’s one thing that Microsoft has demonstrated over the last two decades, it’s that most people will use what comes with their computers or operating systems, if only because they don’t know any better. By distributing Ubuntu One along with Ubuntu, Canonical positions itself to grow a large user base quite quickly, provided users have an incentive to give the application a try.
Ubuntu One could go far, and maybe even provide Canonical with another much-needed revenue stream. Or it could founder as a a result of its silly lack of cross-platform support. Let’s hope someone–either Canonical or a third-party–addresses this issue soon.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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