Desktop Dis-Unity: Ubuntu Adds Web-Search to the Desktop: Page 2

The problem isn't that Ubuntu introduced an affiliate program. It's the program's implementation that is attracting criticism.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

Posted September 25, 2012

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 3)

Implementation Problems

However, even if Ubuntu representatives had been more candid about what they were doing, they would not have quieted objections altogether.

The problem is not just that for many long-time users -- including me -- the Linux desktop has been a refuge from the brand-names that clutter proprietary desktops. Or that, for such users, displaying Amazon results on the desktop seems one step beyond even the notifications and updates that are constantly clamoring for users' attention on Windows.

Instead, the problem is ironic when you consider how Ubuntu has emphasized suability and design principles in the last four years. With its new affiliate program, Ubuntu appears to have abandoned those principles altogether.

Bacon claims that the new features allow ease of use for him as a consumer. "Here Ubuntu has helped me find interesting and new content without having to perform countless Google searches, navigate through various music websites and all their advertising and other such nonsense," he wrote.

He has a point, but he exaggerates the difficulty of searching specific sites, and something of the same convenience could be had by adding a link to the desktop, or a few bookmarks, or learning the advanced search features of a search engine. In many cases, he is talking about a few mouse-clicks, although those can quickly add up.

At the same time, while I have no data, I suspect that many users will find the search results less delightful than Bacon does. Otherwise, why is Ad Block the most popular Chromium extension and Ad Block Plus the most popular Firefox add-on?

When people are doing their best not to see ads in their web browsers, I have to wonder how many will welcome them on their desktops.

Moreover, Bacon overlooks the fact that the main purpose of the dash is not for users to find consumer items. In most cases, Unity's dash is used to find local applications and files. Anything that detracts from that purpose should be avoided.

Yet after Ubuntu's insistence on simplifying the desktop, in the case of this revenue sharing feature, Ubuntu is adding needless complications to a core feature.

Bacon himself may find the new features "neatly and unobtrusively integrated into the dash," but I suspect that anyone using the dash for its main purpose is unlikely to agree. To the contrary, the Amazon results are more likely to be a distraction in average circumstances.

Another basic design principle that the Amazon results ignore is the implementation of privacy. Shuttleworth does argue that "you trust us with your data already," to say nothing of Debian, the distribution from which Ubuntu takes its packages, and the greater community which builds all the applications on the desktop.

Of course, Shuttleworth is right, but he is also beside the point. Trusting community-built applications that have often been vetted by several people is one thing, and trusting the developers of those applications with personal data about your preferences and purchases is quite another.

Moreover, basic security suggests that being reluctant to hand out information is only sensible. Not that there is any reason to mistrust the developers, either collectively or as individuals. It is simply poor security practice to give out information unnecessarily, under any circumstances.

Just as importantly, it is poor practice to default to giving out information. A more secure practice would be to have users explicitly permit each sharing of information.

Granted, Ubuntu has announced that it plans to have search results transmitted encrypted, although for now they are send in the clear. All the same, security is stronger when more than one defense exists -- and users generally feel safer when they have control.

In fact, several commenters on Bacon's blog suggest alternatives that would improve the implementation immensely, solving all the objections I have made here. One suggests that users should have to choose to share information with each query. Another suggests a separate shopping lens, so that local searches would remain uncluttered by Amazon results.

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Tags: Linux, ecommerce, Ubuntu, Unity

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