The latest version of Ubuntu is showing the first signs of conflicting design goals.
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.
To be fair, the criticism has caused Ubuntu to alter the implementation, and results of such searches are now sent encrypted through Ubuntu and not directly to Amazon. In addition, the main pane of the dash now includes a Legal Notice (that changes to an innocuous-looking information icon after being read) that explains how to turn off the feature from System Settings -> Personal -> Privacy -> Search Results. Apparently, too, results are also filtered to reduce the chances of pornography being included in the results.
However, the legal notice does little to respect the rights of users. In a manner reminiscent of end-user license agreements for Windows, it tells users that they consent to the collection of information simply by "searching in the dash" -- never mind if they do so before glimpsing the legal notice. It also states that users consent to information being shared by Canonical and "such third parties" as Canonical chooses.
Under these conditions, the Amazon search results are simply another feature that many users will want to turn off immediately after installation. At least they can do without using the dash, since System Settings are on the launchpad by default.
The On Going
Ubuntu 12.10 sees the continuation of concerns from previous releases. For instance, while development of the look and feel of the Unity interface has quietened down, the sharp-eyed may still notice some minor tweaks. Specifically, boxes in dialogs are more rounded in this release, and the slider bars thinner -- proof that such concerns are not altogether a thing of the past.
Even more importantly, Ubuntu has moved away from earlier attempts to provide for those whose video drivers lack hardware acceleration. Instead of an older version of GNOME or a 2-D version of Unity, the 12.10 release uses LLVMpipe pipe driver for Gallium 3 -- essentially, a software emulation of hardware acceleration.
This change makes sense from a developer's viewpoint, since it gives Ubuntu developers one less code base to worry about. However, on some machines, the result is so sluggish as to make Unity barely usable. Probably, support will improve in later releases, but I can't help thinking that Ubuntu could have made things simpler for everyone by designing a 2-D desktop in the first place.
Somewhat surprisingly, the 12.10 release includes no noticeable enhancements to the Head-Up Display (HUD), which was one of the main innovations of the 12.04 release. Given that Ubuntu's founder, Mark Shuttleworth, implied in his blog that the HUD had yet to equal traditional menus in being a map of an application's functionality, I can only assume that this design challenge has yet to be met. Or perhaps the HUD has been de-emphasized in 12.10 in favor of features with more immediate priority.
Take away the controversies and the ongoing improvements, and what other changes are users likely to notice? Apart from the obligatory updatings of the kernel and other applications, only a few modest enhancements. However, that's not to say that some of these enhancements aren't welcome.
To go along with the Amazon results, Ubuntu 12.10 also includes other new lenses for the dash, including ones for Gwibber, Shopping, Photos, and Help. The Help lens also includes several new scopes (filters) for man pages, LibreOffice, Mozilla, and Ubuntu in general.
Many of these new lenses include the ability to search online accounts as well as local devices, which makes a local apps filter a logical addition.
Click System Settings on the dash, and you will find under the Personal settings a new dialog for controlling online accounts for social media. Click the Workspaces icon on the launcher, and you will find that it alone of all the icons can be repositioned.
Why the other icons lack this ability seems a mystery, since it would be useful for all of them. Still, if only one is movable, Workspaces seems a logical choice, given that its default position is so low on the launcher that it is easily hidden, and many users will want it handy.
However, probably the most important new feature in 12.10 is perhaps the preview feature in the dash. Right-click on a search result in the dash and a preview screen displays, showing a screen shot and a brief description. If the result is an app, the preview also shows whether the result is installed or not, and gives the options to install or launch it. Similarly, if the result is a shopping item, you can buy it from the preview page.
The main inconvenience of the previews is that they replace the main view of the dash, and you have to repeat the search to see other items afterwards. That means that you want to be very sure before you look at a preview. Either the previews need a Back button, or else they should operate like a mouseover, as a similar feature does in KDE.
Ubuntu 12.10 is not a major release so far as features go. Its main interest lies in the continued evolution of the Unity interface.
For one thing, 12.10 confirms what has been increasingly obvious for the last two releases: the main source of customization in the Unity interface is the dash, especially in the selection of lens and scopes. In many ways, the dash has become Unity's equivalent of the panel with its applets in GNOME 2 -- a feature that users can customize as heavily or as lightly as they choose.
Perhaps any popular desktop needs such a feature, but, considering the lack of customization anywhere else, probably Unity needs such a feature more than most interfaces.
Another noticeable trend in 12.10 is that Unity is starting to strain against the confines of its design. Regardless of anyone's opinion of Unity, its original releases were a model of simplicity, exactly as they were intended to be. But now, all the attention given to the dash is making it a more cluttered place.
The same is true on the launcher. As handy as moving the Workspace icon might be, would this feature even be necessary if Ubuntu hadn't added icons for Ubuntu One, Ubuntu One, and Amazon to the default launcher, moving the Workspace icon lower than ever? The movable Workspace icon seems a makeshift solution to a more fundamental problem.
Similarly, previews would be less clumsy if Unity didn't usually default to full-screen displays. Perhaps, too, previews would not even be necessary if the dash wasn't being used for purposes it didn't originally fulfill, such as replacing the browser or product placement.
In the 12.10 release, Ubuntu seems to be suffering from conflicting purposes. So far, the conflicts are not enough to cripple it. But it will be interesting to see in future releases whether the conflicts become worse, and to what extent the Unity interface can retain its initial simplicity.