If you are a Linux distributor, you have a number of possible ways to upset your
user base. Breaking existing, well-established functionality is one of
them. Another would be to install software which appears to be monitoring
user activity behind their backs. Seeming to make money off of these
activities will not help. Extra points are awarded for doing it all as a
surprise. Ubuntu has risked all of the above with the
"multisearch" Firefox extension included in the current "Karmic Koala" alpha
report filed on July 21 had to do with broken functionality. It seems
that, when using the version of Firefox distributed with the third Karmic
alpha release, typing a search string into the "awesome bar" no longer
takes the user directly to the first search result from Google. Instead,
users end up at a Google "search partner" page listing the results and, of
course, advertisements. Other quick searches, including stock quotes and
currency conversions, also break. A related change is that opening a new
tab now brings up an Ubuntu search page instead of a blank page - a change
that some users find jarring.
It turns out that Ubuntu has placed a new Firefox extension, called "multisearch,"
into the Karmic alpha release. In essence, multisearch rewires the various
search mechanisms built into the browser, causing them all to pass
through Ubuntu's partner page. It can be disabled by going into the
"Tools->Add-ons" menu, but, by default, it is installed and
active on all systems.
So why was this done? Rick Spencer, Ubuntu's desktop engineering manager,
the reasoning in a fair amount of detail. The "new tab" change is an
attempt to improve the user experience - something that Mozilla
developers are working on as well. The search change lets Ubuntu know
which search mechanisms are being used most; beyond that, he said:
Change #2 is just an artifact of collecting the usage data. We
could only see what parts of the FF UI people were using to do
searches if we sent them to our custom page. This usage data is
important because it helps us channel design and development
resources to useful features, and is also important because it can
be tied to revenue generation.
Generating revenue that supports the project is a feature, not a
bug. However, we are mindful of not throwing the baby out with the
bath water. In other words, we must strike the balance of
continuing to deliver a top notch user experience while taking
advantage of revenue opportunities.
Ubuntu users are not necessarily opposed to the idea of revenue going
toward the development of their distribution; it's a "feature" they can
support. Many of them are, however,
rather less thrilled about their search data being used to that end.
Rick's explanation - "it's simply the same data that is already sent
to Google and Mozilla: the requested search, and the channel for the
search" - does not appear to have made anybody feel any better. As
might be imagined, some of the more vocal users are throwing around words
like "spyware" and "privacy violations." But even calmer voices are
concerned that this "feature" was silently added to their systems, that it is
not something they wish to have around, and that there has been little talk
of privacy protections for the accumulated data.
Apologies from the Ubuntu side have been few and far between. Ubuntu
Mozilla maintainer Alexander Sack justifies
the change this way:
We regularly change features for software during the development
release; also we add new stuff to our default installs that will
get automatically installed if you opted into ubuntu-desktop; I
agree that it might have been better to move this to a standalone
package and seeding that through ubuntu-desktop; but then its just
an intermediate thing what you see now and you can always disable
it in Tools -> Addons for the time being.
Of course, one should bear in mind that default Ubuntu installations are "opted
in" to the ubuntu-desktop metapackage; very few users will have
deliberately made that choice.
The other thing to bear in mind is that this feature appears in an alpha
release - and that users did indeed make a deliberate choice to install
that release. It's not uncommon to find unpleasant surprises in alpha-quality
distributions, even if it's a bit more uncommon for those surprises to have
been introduced deliberately. Alexander says that multisearch "is not
intended to stay forever - at least not in its current form." One
can interpret that to mean that some of the more annoying failures will be
fixed. It's possible that the entire thing will be taken out before the
end of the alpha-test period. But nobody from Canonical is saying that now.
A great deal of trust is placed in Linux distributors; they have the ability
to inflict all kinds of unpleasant behavior on their users. Distributors
seen to abuse that trust are not likely to retain their users for all that
long, though. The beauty of free software shows through in a few ways
here: undesirable behavior is very hard to hide, it is quite easy to
remove, and, if all else fails, one can switch to a different
distribution with minimal pain. Ubuntu is probably not losing any users
over this episode -
yet. But any user of this distribution who is concerned about this behavior
may want to watch closely to see what decisions are made between now and
the final Karmic Koala release.
(Update: multisearch was removed from Ubuntu on
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