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September 26, 2012
Among the new features planned for Ubuntu 12.10, one, a Unity “lens” that generates search results from Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), has been stirring a lot of controversy lately — so much that Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth recently responded publicly to what he’s calling “FUD-points” regarding the lens. But what will it take to put users truly at ease?
Shuttleworth, who helped found the Ubuntu Linux project and its parent company, Canonical, in 2004 and led the latter as CEO until stepping down in late 2009 to focus on other pursuits within the Ubuntu community, summarized the concept behind the lens feature pretty succinctly on his blog:
The Home Lens of the Dash is a “give me X” experience. You hit the Super key, and say what you want, and we do our best to figure out what you mean, and give you that. Of course, you can narrow the scope of that search if you want. For example, you can hit Super-A and just search applications. But if you throw your query out to the Dash, we need to be a smart as possible about where we go looking for answers for you.
This functionality has been available in Unity, Canonical’s homegrown interface for Ubuntu, for a while now in a limited form. But starting with Ubuntu 12.10, which will officially debut October 2012, the feature will start returning results not only from local resources but also from Amazon.com.
And while Shuttleworth has emphasized that the Amazon.com results “are not ads, they are results to your search” — although Canonical will be benefiting financially from the arrangement — the idea is not sitting well with all members of the Ubuntu community. Some, including readers of this blog, have complained about “spammed search results” polluting their Ubuntu experience.
Others have pointed out — in an official Ubuntu bug report, no less — that the search results can display adult products. Until this is sorted out, it’s certainly not going to help Ubuntu’s image.
Finally, concerns over privacy issues prompted a recent response from Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon, who recognized that the feature will expose users’ IP information and search terms over the network. Since the search currently is not encrypted, that could be a big deal, allowing anyone sniffing around the network to invade users’ privacy. (On the other hand, most major searches that users perform these days, including on Google or Amazon.com, are not encrypted by default either and are subject to the same issue.) But Canonical engineers have promised to encrypt the communications before the final release of Ubuntu 12.10, which will at least prevent entities other than Canonical from knowing what a user searched for in the Unity lens.
To a large extent, the controversy over this feature is similar to the heated debate that emerged several years ago when Canonical wanted to brand Ubuntu’s Software Center as the “Software Store.” People didn’t like the commercialized tone of the proposal, which was eventually dropped — although Canonical has since used the Software Center to sell software with little controversy. The same issue seems to be at stake now, with many users concerned that Canonical’s interest in generating revenue might be trumping its commitment to the broader Ubuntu mission of spreading free software across the world.
That’s not the whole problem, however. The objections regarding adult search results and unencrypted personal data are valid ones that Canonical needs to fix pronto — as it plans to do — if it hopes to introduce the Amazon.com search feature successfully to the community.
If those issues are resolved, I suspect that a lot of users currently in revolt against the new lens will calm down and appreciate the functionality expansion, as well as the cash that it should help generate for the company responsible for Ubuntu development and promotion. Let’s just hope all this gets sorted out before the Ubuntu 12.10 release Oct. 18.
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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