Ubuntu extends Unity Dash search, shrugs off criticism

Ubuntu extends Unity Dash search, shrugs off criticism

Summary: Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth on why criticism of Ubuntu hasn't blunted its plans for integrating online search into the OS.


When the head of the free software movement declares your open source software contains spyware it's gotta hurt.

Late last year, that's how the president of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, criticised Canonical's decision to route queries made through Ubuntu's Unity Dash — for instance, a search for a photo or a piece of music — through Canonical servers and to return results from third party sites such as Amazon.

"When a local search program has a network search feature, it should be up to the user to choose network search explicitly each time. This is easy: all it takes is to have separate buttons for network searches and local searches, as earlier versions of Ubuntu did," Stallman wrote.

But in spite of Stallman's stance Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical doesn't believe that "spyware" an accurate way to characterise what Ubuntu is today.

"I admire and respect Richard Stallman and the role he's plays but I think that made a much better soundbite than realistic comment on what we do," he said.

"We share a lot of core values with Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. We very strongly believe that open platforms and free software are the right platforms for the future. In our own way we do a great deal to advance that cause. That doesn't mean that we feel obliged to agree on everything."

Smart Scopes

Instead of scaling back or removing links between the Dash and the net, Canonical is expanding them. The 13.10 version of Ubuntu for desktops, released this month, expands the Dash search feature by introducing the Smart Scopes service, which aims to allow Ubuntu users to find whatever they want direct from the Unity Dash, whether that content is stored on their computer or online.

With Smart Scopes, searches made through the Unity Dash not only search the machine, but also return search results from more than 50 online sources of information and content — including Google News, the code repository GitHub and the reviews portal Yelp. A project called 100 Scopes is aiming to link more than 100 sources of online information to the Unity Dash for it to search.

By default, every time a user makes a query in the Dash Ubuntu consults servers hosted by Canonical — which, based on the text of the query, determine the best sources to return results from, both locally and online. The suggestions made by Canonical's Smart Scopes servers are constantly refined based on which search results users click on.

Searches can also be limited to a particular service using keywords, for example preceding a query with 'wiki:' to only search Wikipedia.

No data that directly identifies users is collected by the Smart Scopes Servers, only aggregated statistics related to search queries.

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth believes the Smart Scopes search enhances Ubuntu

Shuttleworth is keen to point out that it is relatively simple to limit searches made through the Dash so they only search the PC or specific online sources.

"The tool is very much designed so you can control where the search goes," he said.

"There are a bunch of hotkeys — Super+F and you're just searching your files locally or Super+A or you're searching your applications and the Ubuntu app store."

Canonical has also taken steps to ensure that no queries are sent directly to a third party and that no results are returned directly to the Ubuntu user, but are instead routed through Canonical. Shuttleworth said these steps should prevent a third party from working out who was making a query.

"They are now all proxied through us. It means that Amazon or any other provider isn't able to infer that," he said.

With these protections in place Shuttleworth sees the Smart Scopes as a enhancement to Ubuntu, something that makes it easier to tap the online services and information.

"We live in a highly connected internet world with amazing services and content out there, why not make it really easy to get to."

Further reading

Topic: Operating Systems


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I agree with Canonical.

    Smart scopes is a useful feature not only for the consumer I bet it has some enterprise application as well I work with allot of web pages specific to my job it would be nice to be able to search those through the dash rather than type them into an address bar. I don't understand Stallmans view however since there is no way a consumer is unaware that a web search is happening every time they type in the dash.
  • With this mistake

    Conical lost a lot of followers. This is the M$ approach to OS dev...you'll take what we decided you want, and like it!

    Mint is based on the same code, but doesn't shove Unity down your throat.
    • Huh? Did you read the article?

      From the article:
      "Shuttleworth is keen to point out that it is relatively simple to limit searches made through the Dash so they only search the PC or specific online sources."

      And Canonical does not shove Unity down anyone's throat as one can easily download and install an alternate desktop environment and make that the default.

      P.S. FSF advocates have plenty of choice:


      In addition, one can use Debian and eschew the non-free repository.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
    • RE: you'll take what we decided you want, and like it!

      Yea...shame on Mark Shuttleworth going to your house and putting a gun to your head and screaming "Run Unity or die!" WHAT IS UP WITH THAT PSYCHO!!!

      What's that you say? He hasn't done that? I can still run any desktop and window manager on Ubuntu? Well, that sucks....(for the haters).
      Version Dependency
  • Only the desktop part is free, not the server

    What annoys me with Ubuntu (even though it remains my OS of choice) is that the desktop part is becoming more and more dependent on server components that are not free (Ubuntu One, Landscape, this proxy for the scope, etc.).

    In this perspective, Canonical is following the steps of Google: (almost) everything is free of charge, good part is free code, but they keep the ultimate control. It is logical from a business point of view, but still, it represents a reduction of liberty for the users. I would love to run Unity, but with a cloud independent or better, run on my own server (or my own company one or family one).

    In any case, the evolution of Ubuntu is fascinating.

  • Switched to Fedora

    I switched to Fedora 6 months ago and I've never been happier. Gnome 3 is much much better than unity once you get used to the power of using the super key
  • A legal time bomb.

    The legality of this feature is very questionable, already with existing laws. But worse than that, its introduction comes at a time when a new data privacy law is being drafted by the European Parliament that will likely render this sort of data collection explicitly illegal.

    The consequences for Canonical can be dire.
    Luís de Sousa