The launch of the latest versions of the top two contenders in the Operating Systems space — Microsoft’s Windows 8 and Ubuntu, the Linux-based system — in October could not have been starker. While Windows 8 was launched with much fanfare, the biannual release of Ubuntu, codenamed Quantal Quetzal, or Ubuntu 12.10 (12 for 2012 and 10 for October) was typically subdued.
The latest release of Ubuntu, when compared to the previous release in April 2012, has only two significant feature addition — the inclusion of Web applets that serve as quick links to websites and the Ubuntu Music store right from the desktop dashboard.
But these enhancements have created a tumult in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) communities because the default Web applet on the dashboard is that owned by Amazon, the dada in the e-commerce space. Many in the community, see this as an indicator of Ubuntu’s growing tendency to go against its grain by succumbing to commercial considerations. Whatever Ubuntu may say in its defence, it is clear that it is charting a course that is very different from its origins.
Ubuntu started off as a tributary project (derivative) of the Debian operating system, which aimed at making the desktop experience for users on Linux-based operating systems better. With this primary focus, Ubuntu, under the reigns of Canonical (the company behind the Ubuntu project) steered the diverse skills of the Ubuntu community to yield a stable and refined operating system.
Ubuntu started off with support for purchasing applications from the Ubuntu Software Center, on the models of the Apple application store.
Bhavani Shankar, one of the handful of Ubuntu Developers from the sub-continent and member on the Ubuntu Application Review Board defends Ubuntu’s primary focus, claiming that it encourages free applications that flourish in the Free Software ecosystem.
But in 2011, when Ubuntu pulled out of the GNOME (one of the biggest Free Software graphical user interface community) and arrived with its own Unity interface, it strengthened the FOSS community’s suspicion that Ubuntu was being more aligned to Canonical and not the community.
Unity interface in Ubuntu, today, has incorporated the concept of ‘lens’ to search for applications, files and content on the local computer. In its latest release, Ubuntu is also making these search queries online by fetching results from a few major websites — Amazon, for instance, getting a special applet on the dashboard. By integrating online results in the dashboard, privacy of users, which the Free Software systems is committed to respect, appears to have been compromised.
The Amazon turn
Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, and considered the godfather of Ubuntu, defended the move in his blog. He claims these are far from being ads, but mere suggestions fetched from Amazon. “These are not ads because they are not paid placement, they are straightforward Amazon search results for your search. So the Dash becomes a super-search of any number of different kinds of data,” says Mr. Shuttleworth on his blog.
The Free Software community, which is notorious for its community feuds, has not ignored the battle.
Mr. Shankar stands by Ubuntu. “The Amazon Web applets, or the Ubuntu Music store applets on the dash, although commercial in nature, are not being imposed on anyone. They can be disabled. Just drag and drop to trash will disable these features. The freedom still rests with the users,” he asserts.
Ubuntu has been credited for popularising GNU/Linux-based operating systems to a wider audience, and is now leading the innovation space to a larger extent. The Unity dashboard was aimed at offering users an integrated access space from their local computer, tablets, to the cloud storage. The integration of third party websites like Amazon, BBC, Dailymotion, Facebook, Flickr, Google Docs and YouTube for dashboard search results is deemed to be just another step towards making desktop experience pleasant. Only time will tell whether Ubuntu’s compromises are a serious digression from the FOSS first principles.