Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

October 16, 2012

3 Min Read
Canonical's Plan for Fixing Unity Search

Hoping to put to rest the swirling controversy around Ubuntu 12.10’s integration of Amazon.com search results into the Unity desktop interface, Canonical has published an official summary of its efforts to resolve user complaints. Has the company finally set things right in the eyes of Ubuntu users?  That remains to be seen, but it’s sure trying hard.

As we noted in earlier coverage of this issue, tweaking Ubuntu 12.10 at this late point in the development cycle requires extraordinary effort on Canonical’s part. With the operating system set to debut officially Oct. 18, 2012, introducing even minor changes to the code now, and ensuring they’re tested properly before they hit masses of Ubuntu users, is a tall order.

Fortunately for parties concerned over various aspects of the Amazon.com search integration into Ubuntu 12.10, however, Canonical has undertaken the difficult work necessary to resolve a number of complaints, and plans to continue this effort going forward.  In particular, it has addressed or plans to work on the following issues:

  • Privacy concerns: Network traffic for searches will now be encrypted, ensuring that eavesdroppers can’t see what users are searching for in the Unity dash. The caveat, though, is that images are still being transferred in plain text, a problem Canonical attributes to shortcomings in Amazon’s API. It promises to be working on a solution, however, to make sure that all communications will be 100 percent encrypted.

  • “Adult” search results: In response to complaints like this official bug report, Canonical has taken steps to ensure that search results that are inappropriate for the workplace or otherwise objectionable can be filtered out — although it warns that there may be occasional cases where the filtering fails. But that’s a risk one takes whenever plugging into the wild world of the Internet.

  • Irrelevant search results: Recognizing that users are most often looking for data or applications on their computers when they type queries into the dash, not commercial search results, Canonical has promised to work harder to improve search quality. The exact plans for achieving this improvement will be formulated during the next Ubuntu development cycle that will begin after the 12.10 release this week.

  • The choice to opt out of online search altogether: Users who prefer to eliminate what Canonical calls the “commercial factor” from their Unity experience can now disable search results from the Internet entirely in Unity settings. (But the granularity that some users have sought, to be able to disable certain online results while preserving others, is not yet available.)

But even as Ubuntu developers work to improve the online search experience integrated into Unity, they’ve also been keen to emphasize the potential new opportunities that they believe this feature can create for both Canonical and users. The agreement with Amazon.com creates an additional revenue stream to support Ubuntu development. At the same time, however:

“Evolving the Dash from a place to search for local files and software into a place that can give users instant access to any content, whether on your device or available online, personal or for purchase — is challenging, behavior changing, and if done right, potentially extremely valuable to users. Online commerce is a real and important part of our everyday experience, and with the Dash, we are inventing faster, slicker and more stylish ways for all of us to get more done with Ubuntu.”

Whether users will ultimately become as excited about integrating online search results into the Unity dash as Canonical hopes remains to be seen. But the company has invested a lot of resources in trying to warm the Ubuntu community to this feature ahead of the 12.10 release date, and it also clearly believes this feature could prove hugely innovative in the Linux world and beyond. Whatever one thinks of the idea and its execution, it’s going to be an area to watch closely going forward.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

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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