The Linux desktop has always been a balancing act between convenience on the one hand and security and privacy on the other. However, Ubuntu's recent decision to add results from Amazon to desktop searches creates such an imbalance that I wonder just whose convenience is being considered -- Ubuntu's, or the users'?
The issue erupted with the announcement that, starting with the 12.10 release next month, searches on the Ubuntu dash (menu) would display suggestions from Amazon along with results from the local system. And the launcher would include an icon to connect to Amazon.
Both these changes are part of a revenue-sharing agreement with Amazon -- possibly the first of many, considering Ubuntu's attempts over the last couple of years to do what so many have failed to do: manage and profit from the Linux desktop.
The reaction was immediate. Within two days, the news was on Slashdot. Within three, Ubuntu co-founder Mark Shuttleworth and Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon had posted defenses of the announcements.
These defenses corrected a few mistaken assumptions. For example, Amazon will not receive information directly, but only through Ubuntu. However, neither Shutleworth or Bacon were especially successful in defending the new features. This was largely because neither noticed the objection was not so much to the features but the implementation of the idea, both generally and specifically.
Bacon suggested that part of the objection was due to the fact that Ubuntu stands to profit from the new features. "Some of you may have a fundamental objection to Canonical making money from Ubuntu," he says. "When I hear this feedback, I usually translate it in my mind to 'I have an objection to a company abusing a Free Software Operating System with revenue-generating content.'"
In practice, however, few who took the trouble to comment actually mention the revenue sharing, whose details have not been released anyway. Similar attempts at revenue sharing are far too common on the Linux desktop these days for anyone to consider them unusual.
Few object, for instance, to Linux Mint's brief affiliate program with the DuckDuckGo search engine, or to the Calibre ebook manager receiving income from a portal site listing DRM-free publishers. For that matter, the fact that Ubuntu itself links to the Ubuntu One cloud services, from which users may purchase additional storage, receives with very few critical comments.
Admittedly, some of Ubuntu's previous efforts to generate money from the desktop have been criticized. However, the objections were generally to the specific deal, not the practice itself. For example, Ubuntu's proposal -- which was never implemented -- to make Yahoo the default search engine had more to do with doubts about the quality of Yahoo's results compared to Google's than with the deal itself.
Similarly, Ubuntu's efforts to raise money through the Banshee music player was not criticized in general. Instead, the objections were to the fact that Ubuntu was proposing to unilaterally redirect money that would otherwise have gone to Banshee developers. Even Shuttleworth admitted that "we made some mistakes" in the handling of the matter.
Just as with these past efforts, the objection to displaying Amazon results is not about the simple fact of the deal, but with how it has been carried out.
To start with, it does not help that both Shuttleworth and Bacon insist that the new feature is not about adding advertising to the desktop when that is obviously what is happening. "We're not putting ads in Ubuntu. We're integrating online scope results into the home lens of the dash," says Shuttleworth, as if giving a technical description alters anything.
Bacon, too, attempts a redefinition, insisting that the suggestions from Amazon "are not advertising, they are search results that relate directly to the content you are searching for in the dash."
In these statements, both Shuttleworth and Bacon are technically correct. What they say is true, and no ad is displayed in the traditional sense that explicitly urges users to buy. As Shuttleworth says, "These are not banners or spyware" (although no one claims they are). Nor are they "paid placement."
But their display is still an implicit invitation, conveniently linked to a page where you can buy, which by any sensible definition is an ad. To suggest otherwise is to appear disingenuous, and only creates the appearance of deception where otherwise there would be no reason to suspect any. In attempting to anticipate critics, Bacon and Shuttleworth have evoked suspicion rather than quieting it.
Actually, Ubuntu is better defended by the original statement by Olli Ries, the directory of technology at Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm. Unlike Shuttleworth or Bacon, Ries simply explained that the new features "will generate affiliate revenue that we can invest back into the project," adding that "We have found affiliate revenue to be a good method of helping us to continue to invest in maturing and growing Ubuntu."
Although Ries does not defend the features, neither does he attempt to claim that they are anything except what they are.