For better or worse, Ubuntu has become impossible to review in the same way as other distributions. The upcoming 12.10 release makes that clearer than ever.
With most releases of most distributions, a review consists of picking out features likely to interest average users, organizing them by similarities, and then trying to detect any development trends.
However, that is no longer possible for Ubuntu. The distribution has become so popular and its decision makers so ambitious, both to innovate and to monetize development, that the process is closely scrutinized from the beginning of each six month release cycle to its end.
Watching Ubuntu has become a hobby for thousands of people in the free software community -- a hobby that sometimes resembles a circus and sometimes a lynch mob. For some, Ubuntu and its commercial arm can do no wrong; for others, it can do no right.
Under these conditions, focusing only on features no longer seems useful. If nothing else, the usual approach leaves some of the stories that emerged in the release process unfinished. Instead, it seems more accurate to sometimes refer to the release process and Ubuntu's history as much as the software.
This approach seems especially suitable for Ubuntu 12.10. Code named Quantal Quetzal, the 12.10 release has a few new features. But as the code name "Quantal" suggests, it also shows signs of conflicting -- even mutually exclusive – imperatives. These imperatives are only understandable in terms of the release's controversies and trends that have influenced other releases as much as this one.
Like previous Ubuntu releases, the 12.10 release cycle has its own share of controversies.
To start with, the 12.10 development cycle sees the addition of a donation page to the download process. Ubuntu is far from the first project to include such a page, but the page is hard-sell -- the ability to opt out is invisible until you scroll down the page.
If you do opt out, the screen briefly displays "Nothing. Use Ubuntu for free" which sounds suspiciously close to what used to be called guilt-tripping when I was growing up.
It's the sort of tactic that is unlikely to sit well with many community members -- possibly even with those who might otherwise consider donating.
Even more importantly, although one donation category is "Tip to Canonical -- they make it happen," the page does not make clear whether donations in most of the other categories go to the community or to Canonical -- or if such a distinction can even be made.
Those who are willing to donate to the community may not care to assist a commercial company, especially one that some feel has overridden the community far too often in the last few years. Even those kindly disposed to Canonical may feel that a business should not expect financial help from engineers.
However, the greatest controversy associated with the 12.10 release is the addition of results from Amazon on the main screen of the dash.
Put into a separate lens and showing results only from Ubuntu services, this addition would probably have passed mostly unremarked, just as a similar feature for the Music lens did in the previous release. However, the privacy issues and the general irrelevance of Amazon results when you are looking for an application makes this misguided affiliate program the subject of endless criticism.