The year 2012 has not been very good for Canonical and Ubuntu. The end of the year saw harsh criticism of Ubuntu from bodies like EFF and FSF which accused the operating system of ‘data leak’, ‘privacy invasion’ and adding ‘spyware’ features.
Ubuntu got quite a lot of bad press due to default shopping lens which was introduced and ‘turned on’ with 12.10. The Amazon shopping lens was criticized for various reasons; the most notable was zero control in the hands of a user, which is something contrary to the ‘free software’ approach where a user is in control.
Canonical doesn’t offers any settings for a user to control or manage the shopping experience. The only option added, after stiff criticism, was to completely disable the online search. But it was ‘the highway or my way’ approach. When a user disables the online search feature from the settings it also disables other online services that a user manually enabled – such as Google Docs integration.
Canonical has not yet officially responded to either EFF or FSF.
It’s not about money, honey; it’s about control
It’s actually a very useful feature if implemented well, and Canonical should be complimented for doing it. It’s not that FSF doesn’t want Canonical to monetize from Ubuntu (FSF encourages commericalization). The problem, as EFF and FSF, state is with the way it is implemented.
Now, Gnome Shell is also getting online shopping lens. Alen Bell has created a Gnome Shell extension which allows a user to conduct online shopping search right from Gnome’s Dash. You can install the extension from this link. Once installed you can start searching for online shopping by hitting ‘super’ key and then enter your search term.
User in control
One of the greatest differences between the implementations is who is in control. Gnome’s Shopping lens shows how it should have been done in the first place as it puts the user in control and not the company whose OS you are using.
On the extension page, there is a settings option which allows a user to choose the shopper he/she wants to use. Not only that if I want to choose Amazon, I can also choose the Amazom for my region by simply changing the domain. Bell has explained the usage clearly on his blog, maintaing complete transparecny about the project unlike the Unity shopping lens.
Gnome Shell shopping vs Unity shopping : doing evil
The biggest difference is control. Bell has stated the reasons why Gnome shopping extension is not evil:
- The user is given control over the affiliate code
- It is opt-in for each user of the machine as it is installed in the user home directory.
- There is a user controllable keyword prefix for searching
- It uses https for transport client to server and server to Amazon
- The client side is fully open source
- I am being transparent about how it works
- It does not use geoIP to decide what Amazon store to use, it does not pass your IP address to Amazon.
- I am not interested in logging searches or IP addresses, I plan to monitor logs for a few days to check it is working OK for people then turn off logging altogether for the server.
- Enabling this does not require you to enable other online search providers, they are not co-dependent.
Open source world is all about transparency, while Canonical underplayed in the announcement of Amazon search that the search queries use an affiliate ID which gives Canonical a cut from each purchase, Bell clearly states that his affiliate ID is added by default. But, you can change that affiliate ID or completely remove it. In addition he also writes about the ‘evil’ associate with this extension.
Bell is working on future enhancements of the extension and will include many ‘useful’ features.
I would like to make the store list a dropdown selection – maybe auto selected based on locale or something. It would be good to provide a list of common affiliate IDs for charities and organisations that people might want to support, but I want to retain the ability for a user to type in one of their own choosing. Maybe it could take a list of affiliate IDs that it uses at random. If you have suggestions then do leave a comment, or fork it on github https://github.com/AlanBell/shopping-search-provider.
Bells extension has showed what Canonical should have done in the first place with its Unity shopping lens. The company could have easily averted the harsh criticism from EFF and FSF by making it more configurable. Now, the question remains if Canonical will listen to these concerns and give the control back to user, or continue to drive Ubuntu in Apple’s direction as Jono Bacon wrote on his blog:
Just look at the success of Apple. General consumers have voted with their feet, and people want beautiful, desirable products that let them do useful and fun things with their friends, families and colleagues. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t achieve this with Free Software.
Unfortunately, in Apple’s walled garden the last person in control is the user. So, does Ubuntu really want to go down that road by creating yet another tightly controlled ecosystem which also uses the free software as base?