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Ubuntu Software Center 3.0

Ubuntu 10.10: Maverick Meerkat Benchmarked And Reviewed
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Fulfilling Goals

Maverick Meerkat brings about the third incarnation of the Ubuntu Software Center (USC). When USC debuted last year in Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala, its stated goal was to eventually consolidate the functions of Synaptic Package Manager, Update Manager, Computer Janitor, Add/Remove Applications, Software Sources, and GDebi Package Installer. In reality, Karmic Koala only replaced Add/Remove Applications, and, in our opinion, did a worse job than Add/Remove. The updates in Ubuntu 10.04 LTS fixed most of our usability issues, such as the inability to queue up multiple apps for installation. But USC remained a one-for-one swap with Add/Remove Applications. In Meerkat, USC finally expands on its goal by taking over the jobs of Software Sources and GDebi.

Software Sources lost its place in the System/Administration menu and can now be accessed via Edit in the USC file menu. The tool itself remains unchanged and separate from USC.

In previous versions of Ubuntu, .deb files found on the Internet had to be installed by the GDebi Package Installer, a utility which doesn't even have a listing in System/Administration. As an example, we downloaded the latest 64-bit .deb of the stable version of Google Chrome and installed it on both Lucid and Maverick. As you can see from the screenshots below, double-clicking on the Chrome .deb in Lucid brought up GDebi. Maverick opens USC to install .deb files, no separate application needed.

A little-remarked upshot to centralizing package management is the lack of error screens. For instance, if you wanted to install GIMP in USC and simultaneously install Dropbox via a .deb file, you would be confronted with an error from the second package manager stating that another package manager is already running. By utilizing a single application for all types of installations, there are no conflicts between different package managers.

Though the Synaptic Package Manager still exists in Ubuntu 10.10, USC is making remarkable strides to become a suitable replacement for the robust packaging tool. Searching for apps in USC has always been easy. Like Add/Remove Applications it replaced, USC only shows full applications in its search results, not libs, add-ons, or backend-only programs. In USC Meerkat you can now expand the search results page to show these files by clicking the Show technical items link at the bottom of the screen. Alternatively, if you type in the name of such a package verbatim, it will be displayed in the search results without having to click this new link.

While USC still hasn't taken over the job of Computer Janitor or Update Manager, we can't image those are too far off. Especially considering that USC now handles .deb files (the major aspect of Computer Janitor) and Software Sources, which controls update settings for Update Manager.

Interface Changes

The first thing new users are greeted with is the reworked home screen. Lucid introduced a Featured section to USC, which showcased popular applications. Maverick expands on the Featured section by baking a preview of these apps right into the home screen. Meerkat adds a What's New section as well.

Canonical is obviously taking heed of the lessons other app stores had to learn the hard way. Since Ubuntu uses the massive Debian software catalog, unparalleled in the Linux ecosystem, it's relatively easy for applications to get lost in the crowd. The Featured section is a great way to make sure all the essential, high-quality applications don't get buried in the mound of average. The What's New section offers a way for newly-developed apps to get the same attention right out of the gate.

History

One of the most useful new features in USC 10.10 is a running log of package management activity. A complete history can now be found under the new History heading in the left-hand pane. While the default view is All Changes, the user can further narrow down their package history, sorting by Installations, Updates, or Removals. These entries are fully searchable and listed by the date in which the modifications occurred.

The Real Story

All of the progress and new functionality aside, probably the most shocking new addition to USC in Ubuntu 10.10 has to be the availability of a single retail package. Under Get Software in the left-hand pane of USC, there is now a For Purchase section. So far, only the Fluendo DVD Player application is offered here (for $24.95 USD). During the release candidate phase of Maverick Meerkat, a wallpaper was offered for $1 to test this retail software option. With the final release sporting an actual application, made by a real company, on sale for real money, buying software in an Ubuntu app store is no longer just a test or possible future endeavor. It is happening now.

App stores are essentially money printing machines. In the case of Apple's App Store or Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace, the upsells rake in the real cash, not the money paid upfront for the platform. Ubuntu is free, assuming you already have a PC, so there is no initial cost here. The implications of an Ubuntu app store are far-reaching.

If developers of paid software can easily make money on their applications, they may be more inclined to port them to Linux. Even developers of free (as in beer) software will have another revenue option other than the old, but not-so-trusty advertising or donation models. On the flip side, we can easily see FOSS stalwarts freaking out over this. Taking that position, the For Purchase option in USC can be seen as yet another schism between Ubuntu and the general Linux community, benefiting Canonical and no one else. Whichever side you take in this ideological battle, there is no question that the For Purchase option in USC 10.10 is a really big deal.

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