Ubuntu extends Unity Dash search, shrugs off criticism

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth on why criticism of Ubuntu hasn't blunted its plans for integrating online search into the OS.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

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."

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