Fallout from Ubuntu's New Shopping Lens

Monday Oct 1st 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu users are irritated (or worse) about the Amazon affiliate program. Yet there are solutions.

Unless you've been living devoid of Internet access recently, chances are good that you've heard about the addition of Amazon affiliate links on the Unity Dash in Ubuntu 12.10 beta.

When Mark Shuttleworth first made the announcement, his goal was clearly to inject new revenue into the Ubuntu project, in a non-intrusive manner. And at its core, the idea was sound: as the Unity Dash is used to search for stuff, the Amazon affiliate links will display with the native results presented.

At first pass, the idea sounds interesting. But in practice there are some key areas that are rubbing users the wrong way.

Privacy – Perhaps the most outspoken among those who have taken issue with Ubuntu are those concerned with privacy. People from this group have expressed concern over their privacy as data is sent back and forth between local and remote locations.

Some recent work with Wireshark indicates that IP addresses, along with other, non-intrusive data, has been confirmed as being sent to Amazon – despite Canonical assurances.

Adult Content – Even when using a third party parental control solution such as OpenDNS, the Unity Dash will still display adult-related Amazon products when searching for a few choice key words. The only way to work around this is to uninstall the Amazon functionality altogether.

To make matters worse, the bug that relates to this problem has been placed under "won't fix" status and its importance is marked as "undecided." I’m going to assume that Canonical's intended fix is for concerned users to simply disable the Amazon search functionality.

Irrelevant information – The last group of people concerned about the Amazon affiliate links are those who honestly aren't too concerned about privacy or adult content showing up in Dash. Not because we dismiss the issue, rather because it's simply not something that affects our immediate households.

For individuals such as myself, the bigger problem is how off-base Amazon results show up in the Unity Dash – as if all search queries are about music or video queries. Search for Empathy, end up with books and products about empathy! Even more annoying is waiting on Dash to query for these irrelevant results. It's incredibly useless information given the context of the Dash query.

Ubuntu's next move

Because of the amazingly negative press Ubuntu has received over Amazon inclusion in the Dash search results, the developers are working on offering users a kill switch for the Dash Amazon lens.

In addition, the developer of the Amazon lens has offered us further information on exactly how the lens works and why end users shouldn't be concerned about privacy issues. Jono Bacon has confirmed that data from the Dash will be encrypted.

I think these are great first steps, as Ubuntu's future depends on its users enjoying the overall experience, but there is still room for improvement before we see the next Ubuntu LTS release. As for Ubuntu 12.10, I think we need to remember something very important – it's not a LTS release.

So what we have seen so far is only a working test bed from which Ubuntu developers can create the best possible experience for end-users. Meaning, I think there is still plenty of time for these Unity Dash issues to be resolved.

One area I haven't seen any movement on: when will we see Amazon removed from Dash searches for applications, software, and other areas where Amazon offers zero value?

I hate to keep bringing this up, but unlike parental control concerns in Dash queries, this issue is easily fixed. And as much as I appreciate the goal to bring up relevant Amazon products to support Ubuntu, this isn't the way to do it.

Why Amazon?

Now I have run into a few people who have asked why Ubuntu would include Amazon results in areas of the Dash that couldn't possibly offer any relevancy. The answer to this question is in the Amazon cookie.

Last time I looked into the Amazon cookie lifespan, it lasted up to 24 hours. So let's re-create a situation where someone searching for something random in the Dash might actually use an Amazon link unrelated to the initial query.

Step 1 – Search for something from the Unity Dash. Searching for anything that might happen to have a matching item on Amazon's website will work.

Step 2 – Discover an interesting looking thumbnail image and click on it. At this point you will have set the Amazon cookie in your browser. How could such a thing happen? Try searching your Dash for Empathy. Below the application, you will find a book for $86. Speaking for myself, curiosity got the best of me – I wanted to see how a book on empathy could have this kind of price tag. And because of that choice, I clicked it and inserted a 24-hour Amazon affiliate cookie into my browser.

With this cookie in place, any purchases made on Amazon that same day will produce revenue for Canonical. I can't say for sure that this has affected Canonical's motivation for how they use Amazon, but I suspect this isn't hurting their feelings much, either.

Two simple things Canonical needs to do

After taking everything I've talked about above into consideration, I think it's time to share some brain-dead simple solutions to this silly "Amazon-Unity" debacle. The solutions I'm about to suggest are pretty straight forward. But if Canonical continues to ignore them, it will only serve to make this bad situation worse.

Off switch during install – For someone who has a change of heart post-installation, I think the ability to turn off the Amazon suggestions from the settings area is great. However, for someone not aware of Amazon's inclusion, a check box needs to be presented during the install of Ubuntu. I believe not doing this will likely lead to future headaches down the road for the Ubuntu team.

Amazon for music and video only – To me, the idea of software and documents being polluted by Amazon results is genuinely disappointing. Not because I have any issues with what Canonical is trying to do, rather because the results presented are of no value. On the other hand, video and music suggestions offer the potential for value to Linux users, as MP3s and Amazon movies. New discoveries could be made and purchases would be credited to Canonical. It's a win-win for both Canonical and anyone who wishes to participate.

And when used in conjunction with the option for an off-switch during an Ubuntu install, no one is going to generate more bad word of mouth about something that has the potential to be a good feature.

Great ideas, poorly executed

I'm a fan of Ubuntu. I use the distro everyday, all day. Unity has become my primary desktop and despite being resistant to it back in 2011, I've come to enjoy aspects of the desktop experience.

So if someone from the Ubuntu development team or anyone from Canonical reads my comments above, I sincerely hope that they see my suggestions as something of value and not merely a "me-to" article complaining about how Ubuntu has "gone commercial."

Canonical has poured endless resources and countless dollars into making Ubuntu the best desktop they possibly could. So the idea of finding new and creative ways to fund their efforts makes perfect sense to me. All I would ask, as a fan and as a user of Ubuntu, is to consider the feedback your users are sending your way.

Thus far, I'm seeing evidence that suggestions are being heard by Canonical, but there still are the critical usability issues with Dash and Amazon that I've mentioned on above. My advice to Canonical would be to address this now, before 12.10 is released to the public. Not doing so will result in most people disabling your Amazon feature and leaving the potential for affiliate revenue out of reach.

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