Ubuntu, Function and Fee

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 22, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Ubuntu has a history of trying to profit from the desktop. But its latest announcement that shopping suggestions would be integrated into the next version of the Unity desktop is proving too much for many users -- and I'm leaning that way myself.

Ubuntu's efforts at making the desktop pay began several years ago with the addition of a commercial repository to its package management system. Later, it added direct connections to Ubuntu One, its cloud storage, which offers both free and paid accounts. It considered making Yahoo! its default search engine as part of an aborted affiliate program, and unilaterally changed the revenue-sharing from the Banshee music player. More recently, in the current 12.04 release, results using the music filter in the dash (menu) started displaying results from the Ubuntu One music store, while results using the video filter shows results from Amazon.

If any of these efforts have been more than mildly successful, neither Ubuntu nor Canonical, its commercial arm has mentioned the fact. However, most of these efforts attracted only moderate attention. By contrast, the latest news quickly became controversial, appearing on Slashdot less than two days after it was announced to mostly negative comments.

Specifically, the news was that in the upcoming 12.10 release, the Ubuntu dash or menu would start displaying results from Amazon as part of a revenue-sharing affiliate program. In addition, the launcher would include an icon to connect directly to Amazon

The reaction was immediate and harsh. Users were becoming products, the Slashdot link suggested. More than once on discussions around the Internet, I saw the changes condemned as contrary to the spirit of free software.

This last charge is often nebulous, but in this case, I think it has some very specific reference. In any case, it suggests the depth of negative feeling.

The nature of the complaint
So what exactly were people complaining about? For me, part of the problem, is that the displaying of vendors' names on the desktop is a habit that I associate with Windows. 

These days, my interactions with Windows are mercifully efficiency that business matters. They are brief, but my main impression is that Windows has been taken over by thinly-disguised ads. Icons list are named not just "anti-virus," but a specific company's anti-virus. Each app gives its own notifications and updates, which are as much an excuse to remind users of the product as anything else, with the result that users are exposed to more ads than the watchers of a prime-time sitcom. With some expert knowledge, you can turn off these thinly disguised ads, but many of them have a disconcerting habit of turning themselves back on again. By contrast, until now, Linux has been mercifully free of these obtrusive and constant interruptions. 

However, the problem is not just that an oasis free of commercial considerations is being destroyed. What makes Ubuntu's efforts at profitiability particularly annoying is that they reduce efficiency. 

When you search your music or movie collection, you don't want to see what else is generally available. Even worse,efficiency that business matters. They are when you are searching for your photo-manager, you don't want similar sounding-items from Amazon. Admittedly, Amazon's suggestions are separated from the possible applications in the results, but they aren't when you are still searching and auto completes are being suggested.  Anyway, thinking strictly in terms of function, why should they be there at all?

Similarly, the Ubuntu dash is limited in the number of apps that it can display at one time. So why help to fill up that space with an item that not everyone will want? Free software developers pride themselves on writing efficient applications, but Ubuntu's new features seem to have far more to do with revenue. For many people, they make the Unity desktop less efficient by adding unnecessary distractions.

True, you can remove the results from Amazon and Ubuntu One by removing unity-lens-shopping package. But when Unity is designed for beginners I have to suspect that the unvoiced hope of Ubuntu decision-makers is that many users will be slow to realize that they can do so -- and a choice that users may not realize that they have is, practically-speaking, no choice at all. 

These features might have been more acceptable if they were optional. Or, if Ubuntu wanted to make online shopping more convenient, it could have provided a shopping lense solely for that purpose. However, the implementation suggests that these features have nothing to to do with making Ubuntu better than with bringing in more income. In fact, they make it less so by obscuring relevant results in the most basic uses of the dash. That makes them seem the triumph of commercialism over efficiency -- a reversal of the values that free software is supposed to represent.

The latest let-down
If Ubuntu wanted to make such efforts more acceptable, one way to do so might be to release some financial information about how much such efforts actually bring in. If Ubuntu must reverse the relative priorities of efficiency and commercialism, it could at least maintain another community value by being transparent.

Instead, the most that is suggested in the announcement is that, "We have found affiliate revenue to be a good method of helping us to continue to invest in maturing and growing Ubuntu" -- and that is hardly enough. Justifiably or not, the community like to feel itself a kind of silent partner in distributions, and many would appreciate the sense of being kept informed. And, being in the know, they might not feel that community values were compromised if the compromises meant Ubuntu's success.

As things are, Ubuntu today is hobbled by its public relations past. After promoting itself in its early years as the company to lead the community to mainstream success, Ubuntu's decision-makers should hardly be surprised that they have created expectations that are now being used to hold them to account.

This latest news won't by itself affect Ubuntu's community relations. Unfortunately, though, it is one more item that makes much of the community disillusioned and disappointed.


  • Hold your horses

    The lens can be disabled. So what's the fuzz? Yawn.
  • Disgusted

    Its time for me to move to another distro
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