Ubuntu has come under a decent amount of flack over the past few months, particularly over their decision to use the ‘Dash Search’ to return results from Amazon by default in their most recent release.
What seems to be getting lost in all of this is that Ubuntu 12.04 ‘Precise Pangolin’ (the Long Term Support release that will be supported until 2017) has none of the hoohah that their most recent (until April 2013) ‘Quantal Quetzal’ 12.10 release has brought along with it, and should be doing the world of good in promoting Free and Open Source Software as a fully functioning and very capable alternative to other proprietary and closed-source operating systems.
Until all these problems with regards to the ‘online search’ are looked at properly, I intend to think of Ubuntu as that nice 12.04 flavour and ignore the clumsy bustle of 12.10 in the corner, who keeps shouting about how great ‘Web Apps’ and ‘Integrated Online Searches’ are.
So please do celebrate Ubuntu. But celebrate the calm and wise 12.04 Ubuntu. It’s open source (so you know it’s not up to anything surreptitious or else you’d have many angry technically knowledgeable Linuxists shouting about it), it’s very capable and provides an easy stepping stone for someone coming from a proprietary system and looking for an alternative. If you don’t like their particular graphical user interface then there are plenty of alternatives that can be tried instead.
As for the 12.10 release, I like to think of it as the stumbling drunken uncle version that will hopefully sober up in a month or two.
When Does Anyone Become Aware of Alternatives to Proprietary Software?
It would not be unreasonable to suspect that most people do not start using a computer for the first time in their lives with a full awareness of the differences between a Proprietary System, a Freedom-Enabled System or an Open-Source System. These things tend to be learned as you go along.
I had been plodding away on Windows Vista for a good few years before I became aware that there was an alternative available that didn’t involve paying almost half of what my laptop cost in the first place. What’s more, if I wanted to try out this alternative I could use what was called a WUBI installer to give it a go. If I didn’t like it then I could just uninstall it like any other Windows program.
WUBI is the Windows-based Ubuntu Installer that first allowed me to see that the Free and Open Source Community wasn’t a bunch of amateurs cobbling something together that would most likely break my machine.
I have gone on to learn a lot more about Linux, Open Source Software, The Free Software Movement and the GNU project. Previously, I had no knowledge of any of it.
I had used Free and Open Source Software (Audacity for example) without being aware, and without giving much thought to who had gone to the bother of making it or why they would then allow you to have it for free.
And there’s the rub. I hadn’t heard of Free and Open Source Software. It just hadn’t come up. I’d seen the name Linux and thought it was some specialised weird computer system. My computer ran Windows, so it was a Windows computer. I didn’t have a Linux computer, so it was of no interest to me.
Whatever you might think of Ubuntu’s enthusiasm for self-promotion, it sure seems to get that much needed ‘What is all this Linux stuff?’ reaction.
Stepping Towards the Light of the Free and Open Source Community
Not every computer user is necessarily as blithely unaware or as naively ignorant as I have been, but one of the best advertisements for the Free and Open Source Movement is a fully functioning operating system that lets you see what a community of like-minded programmers can do.
From my first dabblings with Ubuntu, I have taken some steps away from the Proprietary Software System model and wandered a little closer to a better way of doing things.
And that’s Ubuntu’s charm. There are plenty of other GNU/Linux distributions that are more than capable of offering great things, but Ubuntu excels in promoting the fact that there ARE alternatives in the first place. When a new user decides to give it a whirl, they find that they can do pretty much everything that they could do before and the penny drops: Free and Open Source Software is a viable alternative.
Before this I would have thought that a community of people, who got together and collaborated on a project which they were generally not paid to do, would produce fairly mediocre results compared to a professional project with plenty of money to throw at it. The GNU/Linux Community shows that this is not the case.
Ubuntu is based on Debian Linux. Debian Linux is a celebration of what a Community-based project is capable of. Ubuntu is essentially Debian Linux with bells and whistles added on. You don’t have to like the bells and whistles personally, but they’re doing a great job at turning a few heads in the direction of the GNU/Linux Community.
Once they’ve wandered over, then they will be more likely to see that there are alternatives to the alternative, but you need to get them over in the first place. It seems a shame that in order to get people to pay attention, telling them the problems with Proprietary Software won’t attract half as many people as a slick interface with some neat effects.
I have a curious fondness for Ubuntu. It revitalised my ageing laptop and made it more enjoyable to use. Underneath it all, I knew that a community of people had worked together to make something that was good and that everyone was free to use and share it if they so wished. They had chosen the Free and Open Source Software model as their preferred way of doing things, whilst most likely realising that they would not receive the same monetary rewards that similar work for a Proprietary Software company could offer.
Recklessness and Bad Press
So it seems a pity that Ubuntu’s parent company, Canonical, have made some dubious decisions more recently which have opened them up to some not entirely undeserved criticism. If the decision had been made not to enable their Amazon results from the ‘Dash’ by default, I think they could have stepped past some of the more pointed attacks on whether they were up to something sneaky or not.
What it reminds me of is when you are installing Flash Player from Adobe or Java from Oracle (on some other operating system) and there’s a little check-box, already ticked for you, before you click ‘next’. Fortunately, I tend to read these boxes and uncheck my ‘Just Ask’ toolbar or ‘Security Scan’ or whatever it is that they’re trying to push on the unwary clicker, but I resent them for doing it and assume they couldn’t care less what I think of them. If they weren’t being pushy, it would be unchecked when you got there.
All it would have taken to change the tone was for your new installation of Ubuntu to have an initial option that outlined what the feature was, why they think it’s good and whether you wanted to enable it or not. Not ‘on’ by default or ‘off’ by default, but ‘What about this? Would you like it?’.
When the online Dash search feature first appeared in the development releases, there was a decent amount of fuss about it. You’d think they might have realised that it was a particularly touchy subject, but no, they just rammed it right in there by default for the full release anyway.
If it was such a great and useful feature then why be fearful that less people would switch it on if they were given the choice first? There would still be privacy concerns over where that information was going and who could see it, but at least then it would have been by the choice of the user.
I suppose what I expected from Canonical and Ubuntu (‘Linux for human beings’ I believe is still their tagline) was for it to say clearly, right there, the first time you started it up ‘We know some people may be concerned about privacy but we think we can do this really well. Give it a try…’. If that had been the case, I would be able to see their position in a more sympathetic light.
They have been pushing forward enthusiastically with what is often described as ‘seamless integration’. Personally, I don’t mind the seams. I like to see where one program ends and another one starts. But then I doubt that I’m their target market…
Perhaps they’ll prove their critics wrong and we’ll soon find something similar adopted across all desktop and laptop computer systems. Except this time it will also prominently have a big red ‘Online search: ON/OFF’ button right there when you are using it.
I want to trust them. I want to believe that any information they collect from their online search will not be used to create a ‘consumer profile’ that will then be used to try to sell me things (directly targeted adverts is the cash cow that a lot of big companies are lining up to throw money at) or worse still be up for grabs to anyone willing to pay for it to do whatever they want with it (sinister or not).
I want to still like what Ubuntu is doing, but I’ve begun to notice how reckless its enthusiasm for chasing after fancy features is.
They have received a heap of bad press from the Linux Community and left a lot of folks looking at them suspiciously and thinking ‘What are they going to try next?’. I wonder if it has all been worth it for them (Amazon purchases from the Dash get some money for Canonical) or whether they gauged the reaction to their feature particularly badly.
So lets assume it’s all fine: you press the ‘Super’ key (the ‘Windows’ key usually) and you type in what you’re looking for, giving you results not only from your computer but also from places on the internet. They are going to develop this feature further to include other results, but at the moment the choice is fairly limited: online results come from Amazon, Ubuntu Music Store, Ubuntu Software Centre, some suggestions from BBC iPlayer and I have read (but not tried yet) that you should be able to search your Flickr account or Google Drive documents from there too.
Maybe, just maybe, this might be the flashy feature that tempts someone over to see what else Ubuntu or one of the many other Linux distributions have to offer, but Canonical are wading into risky territory.
Their take on this is that it makes finding what you want from your local storage or online become a seamless search, the less favourable slant is that it sends adverts right to your desktop. It would not have been a ‘weakness’ to acknowledge this. If the dialogue had been ‘It’s there, it’ll be useful, but if you don’t like it you don’t even have to switch it on in the first place. It is entirely up to you’, then I would have considered that they held a very strong position in the face of any controversy.
Canonical have included an ‘off’ switch, apparently due to popular demand. It’s nice that they listen and make changes accordingly, but I’m genuinely surprised to find out (in fact, I’m still hopeful that I’ve got this wrong) that it wasn’t made with one from the start. First feature before getting it up and running: ‘Hmm, maybe people will only want to search locally with the Dash. Let’s give them that option just in case…’
It’s not made me hate Ubuntu or Canonical, but it’s certainly made me look out for their next release with a lot less enthusiasm. Instead of being excited, I’m just vaguely hopeful that they don’t implement some whacky new feature that reads your e-mails and then buys any brand names that you’ve mentioned using your credit card details: ‘It makes the transition between thinking about stuff and getting it sent to you seamless…’
Okay, so it’s not that bad yet. Maybe the problem is that I think of Ubuntu like one of my favourite pets. I want good things for him but he just pooped on the carpet and I’m not sure if he might do it again.
We can still play ball together and I’ll pat him on the head, but I’m keeping a much closer eye on what he’s up to…
About the Author:
Perry Helion jumped ship from Windows Vista a year or two ago and went off to explore the many lovely Linux islands that inhabit the OS Seas…