I skipped Ubuntu 12.10 almost entirely. In VirtualBox, with the Guest Additions installed, mousing was completely broken due to a bug in the X Server. While I understand it was an issue affecting an upstream project, I felt it was unfortunate that it shipped that way, and it appears that it may never be fixed. (This bug affects many more distributions than just Ubuntu — Debian Wheezy appears to be shipping with it as well, which is preventing me from doing any kind of testing with it or with distributions built on its foundation, like Crunchbang)
I’m always interested in what the Canonical folks are up to, especially now that the spotlight is shining on them to deliver a solid gaming desktop in a potentially post-Windows world. I grabbed today’s daily image of what will become Ubuntu 13.04, “Raring Ringtail”. Mostly, I wanted to know if the above issue had been worked out. It has.
But I was also interested to see first hand what all the hubbub was about. If you’re not aware, Canonical’s Dash (a launcher/desktop search feature, similar to that found in the Windows Start Menu) sends your queries to one of their servers, and feeds back Amazon results below those from your local computer. Early demonstrations were not so good, but quickly whipped into presentable shape. Linux users being Linux users (which largely seems to feed off of hatred of anyone making more money than they are), ravaged Canonical for the decision, finally resulting in the ‘hubbub’; Richard Stallman, Linux’s cranky granddad, labeling the entire distribution “spyware”. Hmm. I try not to pick up troll bait too often, so it seemed imperative to take a look for myself.
My initial reaction was that it was really not so bad. The Amazon search results are clearly labeled “suggestions”, they appear below the other search results, and because they are live queries, it takes a few moments for them to appear — I can usually find what I’m looking for on my local system before the results even appear.
One change I noticed from Ubuntu 12.10 was that the online results were not returned on certain queries. For example, I banged the letters ‘term’ into the Dash, and waited several seconds. The Dash’s animated icon communicated to me that it had finished searching, and no Amazon search results ever appeared. I added a ‘p’ to the end of my query (now ‘termp’), and the Dash responded by searching online and returning a book. I’m assuming this is a new optimization of common or well-known program titles to reduce quibbling amongst power users. It seems to be based on executable name rather than shortcut description, as searching “libre” (LibreOffice), “ged” (gedit) and “fire” (Firefox) produced searches with no Amazon results, while “write” (LibreOffice Writer), “text” (Text Editor) and “browse” (Firefox Web Browser) did.
Ubuntu 13.04 doesn’t ship for many months, and things here may improve, or still take a turn for the worse. But if you’re already a user of just about any popular website, you’ve long ago handed over your interests, online activities, and search queries to data miners. I’m not excusing it, I’m saying that we as people have allowed it, and Canonical are not the first (or last) people to implement it. Did Android get this kind of backlash? Google’s use of data mining are much more well known, well integrated, and potentially more devious.
Another complaint regarding Ubuntu 12.10 was Canonical’s decision to remove Unity 2D (a version of their Unity shell that didn’t depend on compositing). Previously, Ubuntu would ‘fall back’ on Unity 2D if hardware acceleration was not available. But this meant there were two branches of Unity in development at all times, which is pretty stupid. This change brought the entire shell together under one code base. Rendering of the full shell is now offloaded on the CPU, meaning a severe performance hit for low-end users. Ubuntu has never been considered a minimalist’s distro, and hardware accelerated desktops have been with us for half a decade, so I’m not really sure why people are complaining here.
That was until I was able to see this first-hand. VirtualBox’s Guest Additions are clearly installed and working, and therefore should accelerate Unity (I’ve used it with GNOME and Unity in the past), Unity’s fade animations on menus and other elements clearly suffered. The performance was admittedly poor, despite my hefty host machine which had little to no difficulty with Ubuntu 12.04.
I’m not sure what else I should be looking for. We’ve been told that the majority of upcoming changes in Ubuntu will be related to power management and optimization (to improve mobile experiences), but running in a Virtual Machine, these changes will be transparent to irrelevant. But it’s nice to know that I’ll at least be able to track its development.