Ubuntu Software Store Generates Questions
The Ubuntu Software Store debuted last month in the latest alpha release of Ubuntu 9.10. Since its announcement, however, there has been more than a little debate over the application’s name, if not the concept behind it, with many commentators questioning the implication of the word “store.” Here’s the scoop.
Billed as an eventual replacement for the Add/Remove Programs application, the Software Store, which will ship in an early form with Ubuntu 9.10 in October 2009, aims to make finding and installing software in Ubuntu even easier, and to unify software-management tasks under a single interface.
But the name assigned to the application has met with a lot controversy on the basis that “store” is not an accurate description of the program’s current function, and that it carries implications that are at odds with the Ubuntu spirit. As one user put it most succinctly, “Doesn’t ‘store’ imply that the user will be paying for the software?”
Indeed it does. So what does Canonical really have in mind?
To be clear, Canonical has yet to announce a plan to sell software through the Software Store. Instead, the official rationale for the project focuses on the need to simplify the task of managing applications, especially for users coming from Windows who are perplexed by the fact that Ubuntu doesn’t require them to download bloated installers from random untrusted websites in order to install applications.
That said, it seems highly unlikely that no one among Canonical’s 300 employees noticed that the term “store” might sound confusing if nothing will actually be sold through the application, so I’d put my money on an effort by Canonical to use the program as a channel for selling software somewhere down the road.
Moreover, if improving usability were really the only motive behind the Software Store, it’s unclear why a totally new application was necessary in the first place. Add/Remove Programs is pretty intuitive as it as; it doesn’t make sense for Canonical to scrap it entirely unless it has something more than a simplified interface in mind.
Freedom isn’t (necessarily) free
The unifying trend in messages on the Ubuntu developers’ list regarding the naming controversy is that few people want to have to pay for software. As one commentator wrote:
I don’t like “Store” because it inclines me towards thinking it’s a for-profit venture, and I guess that’s because the word ‘store’ is now tainted by all the proprietary software repos out there that have previously been listed. I’d be more inclined to like something that took the ethos of Ubuntu…
In other words, selling software contradicts the “ethos” behind Ubuntu, according to this user. In some respects, it could be argued that this is true, since Ubuntu promises to be always “free of charge.” But selling certain optional components–like DVD codecs, for example–is not incompatible with Ubuntu’s free-as-in-beer commitment, and no one should criticize Canonical if it employs the Software Store towards such ends. After all, Canonical deserves to make money.
Indeed, a channel for distributing for-purchase software could open up a lot of new opportunities for both developers and users. It would make it easier for proprietary vendors to reach out to the open-source world, and perhaps allow open-source programmers to generate a little cash from their software, even if the code remains open. Selling optional software through the Store doesn’t mean Ubuntu itself will cost money.
A better name?
Given the likelihood that the Software Store will eventually become a channel for selling applications in addition to distributing Free ones, and that that development is in the interests of everyone, I don’t see a reason to worry so much about the implications of the term “store.” Although the application won’t serve as a store in Ubuntu 9.10, it may well become one in future releases. And that’s fine.