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25 September 2012

Ubuntu sailing into uncharted waters

Every time a new Ubuntu release is out there is always some controversy on this or that new quirk the developers of this distribution decide to take. With a release cycle of only 6 months that's all to be expected for, if you're willing to use the latest Ubuntu you simply have to accept the fact that you're by default also a tester. That's pretty much one of the tenets of FOSS, more so with a product that tries to be as innovative as Ubuntu. About 18 months ago, when the new desktop environment was introduced a good deal of backlash came up. Indeed the first Unity versions were difficult to understand and buggy; but today, after absorbing its logic and with most bugs dealt with, I can only say it clearly improved my productivity over Gnome 2. That's just the way it is: the latest Ubuntu release is a bleeding edge product and you are part of its maturation process; if you don't like it you can always opt for an older release.

But only one month away from the introduction of Ubuntu 12.10 a new Unity feature has been made public that can potentially change all this.

One of the coolest features of Unity is the so called Lens, a dash menu accessible by simply pressing the Super key that allows the user to search the system for programs and files. It is quite effective for it uses metadata on your programs to improve the search results; I find it useful especially in older systems with lots of forgotten software installed. I don't use it for file search as much, but it can also be very effective bringing up something you can't recall where in your hard drive it has been cast.

Up to now if I made a search for "evin" with Lens I'd get as result my favourite pdf reader. With Ubuntu 12.10 I'll might also get things such as "The Chair of Power" by Andy Mann and Murat Evin, or "Euthanasie, le débat tronqué" by Marine Lamoureux, Louis Puybasset Pr. and Claude Evin. I'm as stunned.

A search by Shotwell now brings up a series of book suggestions. Source OhMyGodUbuntu!


The idea behind this new Ubuntu quirk is to bring the Lens beyond a system wide search engine into a "Lens over the whole world". So with Ubuntu 12.10 the Lens is actually an Amazon search engine, with every click on one of these new search results feeding a small income to Canonical, the company developing Ubuntu. The idea in itself may be good, and perhaps an interesting new path for innovation, but there is a big problem: it will now be the default Lens behaviour. To search for files or applications the user now needs to invoke the Lens dash in a specific mode, by either pressing Super+A or Super+F.

There are two main issues with this default behaviour. First of all, if I intend to search for my pdf reader of choice and I get informed that there's a new book on Euthanasia co-authored by someone called Evin, then I'm sorry, but this can't be called other than an advertisement. Secondly, this new feature means that every Lens search will be generating internet traffic; more than that, it will be sending my searches to a remote server. It has been clarified that Canonical handles the request and no search is send directly to Amazon, but all data is transmitted in unencrypted clear text.

Beyond these obvious issues there are even concerns with the pure usability of this feature. There's no such thing as Amazon.lu, so, when I perform a search with the Lens where will the request be sent to? Amazon.fr? Amazon.de? Will it guess my seldom used account is at Amazon.co.uk?

The uproar has been such that Mark Shuttleworth, the South African millionaire that founded Canonical, has felt compelled to publish a post in his widely read blog defending this particular feature. He has some good arguments about innovation, that it requires taking some risks to experiment new ideas. I don't disagree on these points, but when it comes to the privacy issues Mark has some very unfortunate remarks that only threw more wood into the fire:
We are not telling Amazon what you are searching for. Your anonymity is preserved because we handle the query on your behalf. Don’t trust us? Erm, we have root. You do trust us with your data already.
First of all this is not true: Canonical does not have my root password and does not have access to my data. This is a confusing assertion that can lead less sapient or new coming users to think that data on their usage habits are already being harvested by Canonical. This a dangerous sort of wording, that touches core and sensible characteristics of FOSS: privacy and independence. In essence I do not want my searches feed by default to a remote server, be it Canonical’s or Amazon’s. I quit using Google’s search engine for these same reasons.

In the least this feature shouldn’t be active by default. Unity is primarily a desktop environment, not a web or shopping search engine. Such a feature could for instance be available in a specific Lens mode, accessible by pressing something like Super+S (for Shopping), with the user objectively requiring a search of the genre. That way I might not mind doing my occasional shopping searches through the Lens and help out Canonical.

Ubuntu is my Linux distribution of choice not only for its innovative approach to human-machine interfaces, but also for the wide and active community assembled around it. Mark's words outline the concept of a Linux distribution that doesn't exactly match with the present Ubuntu community. Canonical is close to touch sensible characteristics that can bring into question this product-community dynamics. For sure the standard Ubuntu user is different from the standard fancy gadgetry user, but this set of idiosyncratic people has helped made Ubuntu what it is today. Tampering with the trust relationship between user and the product can only be an ill advised move.

It was by sailing uncharted waters that new worlds got charted. But sometimes when you sail too far you may get lost and may not come back. Before Bartolomeu Dias managed to cross Cape Agulhas many expeditions failed and many lives were lost.