Ubuntu is one of the most important free software projects that is targeting the consumer segment. Despite its strong enterprise presence, it strives to keep the 'desktop' relevant. After attempts to integrate the web with Ubuntu through WebApp and Lenses to access web services. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, is now integrating Amazon with it's Unity Dash.
The changes Ubuntu made has been met with some resistance from the Open Source community. These changes were criticized from three different angles.
- Is it fine to integrate online search with local search?
- Is Ubuntu going ad supported?
- It is a security risk
Should web search appear in local search
This is not the first time someone has tried to integrate web and local search. Google started the Google Desktop project way back in 2008 which allowed text searches of a user's e-mails, computer files, music, photos, chats, Web pages viewed, and other "Google Gadgets". But Google, the search engine expert, did not see any potential in integrating local and web searches and discontinued the project on 2011. Google did try to offer system wide search integrated with it's Google search but had to discontinue as Apple held some stupid patent on it. However, this seems different from what Unity Dash search is offering. Google allowed users to enable or disable the 'services' or sites they wanted to include in the unified search.
So, how different is Unity Search?
Mark Shuttleworth maintains that Home Lens of Dash is a place to search everything. “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.”
Google's unified search was an enhancement as it enabled a user to search local files and apps from the same search bar – something that a user needs. That's what Dash used to do – to allow me searching local files and folders. On Android the same search bar also allowed users to conduct online searches. What Dash is trying to do is bringing web search to it, opposite of what Google tried. This makes things complicated.
In its current form Dash shows local files, folder as well as applications along with results from the Ubuntu One Music store and Affiliated links from Amazon.com. Mark however gives hints at a wider integration with web services. I do like the idea of integrating web services with Dash, what I am not sure is turning Dash into the Firefox 'search' box. Is it worth doing when it's just a browser away?
How Unity does it for an Amazon user?
Let's see how Unity search enhances experience of a heavy Amazon user. I was planning to buy an Android Figure and I knew where to get it from so instead of running a search on Google I simply went to Amazon.com and searched “Android Figure' for it. Will I get the desired result if I entered only android in Amazon search? No. It will show me everything under Amazon's roof including Android phones, tablets and books.
To make it easier for users to search specific products Amazon has created product categories. When a user enters a term on Amazon it auto-completes search terms based on the products available. Amazon is trying to help user in finding what he is looking for instead of offering a big search box to search for a generic term.
How does Ubuntu plan to do that? How will it integrate those categories and auto-completion? How can I use Dash if I am looking for a wireless webcam which can be accessed over local network? Is Dash search really useful when it shows me some webcams from Amazon while I am searching my hard drive for the article that I wrote about web cams?
Can Ubuntu offer that level of integration with Amazon? If not, then it might show just random results from Amazon, and that won't help an Amazon user.
Is it worth investing resources in replicating what Amazon is offering on its website when a user can simply go there? Won't Ubuntu be always on its toes to keep up with the improvements Amazon will make in its search results?
What is Canonical getting out of it?
Is Ubuntu going ad supported?
The way Amazon Dash integration works is that Canonical gets a cut from Amazon every time a user buys the product that showed up in a search.
Jono Bacon verifies it in his blog, “It is no secret that for each product sold (not searched) from Amazon or the Ubuntu One Music Store, Canonical takes a small cut. This affiliate revenue is a useful way in which we can generate revenue that we can continue to invest into the Ubuntu project to build new features, maintain our infrastructure, and improve Ubuntu.”
Does it mean Ubuntu is putting ads in Dash? If yes, is it bad? Unethical? I have issues with both points, if these ads allow Ubuntu to continue to develop what's the harm?
Canonical doesn't charge it's non-enterprise customers so if it finds a model to support development that's good news.
Open source doesn't mean non-commercial or not-for profit. It's a development model and not a business model. So, if Ubuntu becomes an ad supported distro (so is Linux Mint, by the way, since it uses Yahoo! Search, even Windows machines come with ad-ware pre-installed to keep the prices low and carriers pre-load bloatware to subside smartphones) there is no harm.
In its current form, Dash's Amazon integration is a form of advertisement where Ubuntu will get a cut if a user end up buying (not just clicking) a product that appeared in the Dash.
Mark may not agree with it and maintains, “These are not ads because they are not paid placement, they are straightforward Amazon search results for your search.”
That statement doesn't seem to be correct and contradicts with what Jono wrote in his blog. Amazon's Affiliate program is as much advertising as is Google Adsense. You get paid when someone makes a purchase from the link you send him to Amazon. It is an advertising model. These are paid placements – you get paid only when someone makes a purchase.
Amazon clearly states on its Affiliate Program page, “Earn advertising fees from Qualifying Purchases, not just the products you advertised.”
I don't know why Mark needed to defend it. May be because of the people who think of free software as free beer or non-commercial, non-profit endeavors. That's not true. Even FSF maintains:
“Free software” does not mean “noncommercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution.”
Canonical has all the rights to find a business model to support the development of Ubuntu. Ubuntu users should (and majority do) embrace such efforts. The future of Ubuntu relies on it's commercial success and Mark and the team are doing the best they can without compromising the core values they set for Ubuntu.
So if Dash integrates Amazon results and its pays Canonical's bills, that's great.
That leaves us with the third point: is it secure?
Some experts raised issues about how Ubuntu sends the search data to Amazon. The data is not encrypted in the beta. Can a user trust Ubuntu? Mark has made it clear that the queries will be encrypted in the release version and it makes sense.
Mark addressed the trust question with this statement, “Don’t trust us? Erm, we have root. You do trust us with your data already.”
When I fly in a plane I do trust the pilot as he holds our lives, that trust comes from the reputation of the airlines, the safety procurers, the training pilot must have gone through. That trust ends there. I don't hand over my ATM PIN or my house keys to the pilot.
In fact I don't trust Ubuntu or Google with my data. That's why , and thats why I keep, and its recommended, back-up of my data.
I recall Mark's recent statement regarding FSF, “As nice as it is that someone at the FSF says they would not, we have to plan for a world where leaders change and institutional priorities change.”
So, don't trust anyone blindly and plan for a world where leaders change and institutional priorities change.
In fact Ubuntu's legal page makes it abundantly clear not to trust them.
Canonical disclaims liability for any direct, indirect, incidental, special, consequential, exemplary, punitive or other damages, or lost profits, that may result directly or indirectly from the use of this and any other websites hosted by Canonical and any material that is downloaded or obtained through them.
This includes, without limitation, any damage to computer systems, hardware or software, loss of data, or any other performance failures, any errors, bugs, viruses or other defects that result from, or are associated with the use of this and any other websites hosted by Canonical.
So, in other words Ubuntu's legal page warns you to not trust them too much. This is not about they will willfully do bad things to your system, but that if something does go wrong they won't be liable.
So, if Dash kills your cat or eats your ham don't blame them for this very simple reason. However, there is a very strong reason for trusting Canonical with the way they will handle these queries. Mark founded Thawte so you can trust him with how secure these queries will be.
Amazon integration with Unity is a welcome move as it opens doors for other GNU/Linux based distributions to find new revenue generation models beyond donation.
As I stated above there is a lot of work needed to be done to offer the first grade Amazon or any shopping experience on Ubuntu.
Ubuntu does need some level of integration with online services (will write more about that later) and looking at these development snapshots, they are heading in the right direction.
What is commendable about Mark and the Ubuntu teams is that they are exploring new ways to make the desktop better (better than it's proprietary counterparts). Whether it's WebApps, Music and Movies lenses or Amazon integration the Ubuntu team continues to show that they can innovate and lead.