What's new in Ubuntu Desktop 12.10
by Fabian A. Scherschel
Ubuntu 12.10 has arrived; the first major version of Ubuntu since the release of the well-received Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. At the start of the release cycle, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth defined quality as the watchword for Ubuntu 12.10 "Quantal Quetzal". Fabian Scherschel looks at the new desktop release to see how well his definition stood up to six months of development.
"We’ll keep the platform usable throughout the cycle, because that helped hugely to encourage daily use of the release, which in turn gives us much better feedback on questions of quality. Our focus on quality permeates from the platform up to the code we write upstream, and our choices of upstream components too." - Mark Shuttleworth
Ubuntu Desktop 12.10 arrives with a Linux 3.5 kernel, an all new X.org stack, Mesa 9.0 and GNOME 3.6, all topped with Unity 6.8. The new stack should deliver better smooth scrolling and improved ATI and NVIDIA drivers. Add to that a renamed and reworked software updater, webapps on the desktop, a switch to Python 3.2, OpenJDK 7 as default Java, GCC 4.72 and an up-to-date GNU toolchain, along with all the latest versions of the application packages and Ubuntu 12.10 should be one of the hottest desktop Linux releases around. But...
Divisions around Unity
It's not the first time that features dropped into an Ubuntu release in the closing stages of development have set the tone for that release and Ubuntu 12.10 is no exception. One of the most discussed additions to Ubuntu this time around surprised pundits and Ubuntu community members alike: Canonical rolled out a feature in a beta version of Quantal Quetzal that put recommendations for products (mostly from Amazon, although this depends on the user's location) right in the home page of Unity's Dash.
The Dash is essentially the combined search interface and application launcher for Canonical's Unity desktop, which has been the default user interface in Ubuntu for several versions now. Ever since the Dash gained the ability to be extended by so called "Lenses", which in essence are context-aware search filters, Canonical and the Ubuntu community have added new capabilities to it. The addition of shopping results is provided by such a search filter, called the Shopping Lens. What surprised many users was the fact that the Shopping Lens is actually integrated in the Dash's home screen.
Other Lenses have their own icon at the bottom of the main dash window and need to be navigated to manually. These provide searches for videos, music and other content. But Canonical chose to integrate the Shopping Lens with Unity's Application Lens in such a way that users who were searching for a keyword – and probably expecting an application to pop up – suddenly got shopping tips as well. This leads to such bizarre results as being offered deals on thermal paste on Amazon when a user types "term" to find their terminal emulator on the system.
While the advertising in Unity is neither new nor exclusive to the Shopping Lens, it is more visible and jarring in this case. The older Music Lens, for example, also offers music that a user can buy from Ubuntu's own music store alongside results for music that they actually own, but the Shopping Lens behaviour leads to results that are a lot more unexpected and that users will encounter immediately since these results appear on the home screen of the Dash.
The current implementation of this feature is therefore more distracting than helpful. As there is quite a difference between searching for locally installed applications or stray documents and searching for products on Amazon or similar stores, it is hard to see how the addition of the Shopping Lens can be useful for most users in its current state. It might, however, drive some profits for Canonical from the embedded referral codes.
The addition of the new Photo Lens is a different case altogether. By clicking on the camera icon in the bottom of the Dash, users can now search their machine for images stored in Shotwell, Ubuntu's photo manager, right from Unity's main interface. Since the lens can also pull in photos from online accounts associated with a user on the system, the Photo Lens will display images from a user's Facebook and Flickr contacts alongside the local images. This feature shows how online searches, if implemented carefully, can actually be useful to users. Hopefully, the Shopping Lens can be integrated in a similar way in a later release.
For users who prefer not to use the Shopping Lens or who object to online searches from their Dash for privacy reasons, the developers have included the ability to turn online searches off globally across Unity from the Settings ➤ Privacy screen. The problem with using this setting to disable the Shopping Lens is that users will also lose all the other aforementioned online features in the Dash. To get rid of only the Shopping Lens, users can manually uninstall the unity-lens-shopping package, but this is not something that casual users will be able to discover by themselves. It is a shame that the developers have not included more fine-grained control over the different lenses in the Privacy settings dialog.