Ubuntu's Software Center: A Promising Work In Progress - InformationWeek

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11/4/2009
01:23 PM
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Ubuntu's Software Center: A Promising Work In Progress

There has been a lot of confusion and hand-wringing lately over Ubuntu's new Software Center feature. Some of this is clearly Canonical's fault, but some of it clearly is not.

There has been a lot of confusion and hand-wringing lately over Ubuntu's new Software Center feature. Some of this is clearly Canonical's fault, but some of it clearly is not.If you're just getting acquainted with desktop Linux in general, and with Ubuntu in particular, then the software installation process can be a real shocker. Rather than finding, downloading, and running individual software installers -- some of which may or may not pose security risks -- Linux distros use software repositories to provide relatively secure, easy access to a staggering array of applications.

I recently discussed the advantages of using repositories for desktop software management. Wikipedia also offers a good, if somewhat more technical, overview of the topic here. And finally, Computerworld Linux guru Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols posted a good introduction to the subject earlier this year.

Yet there is still more than one way to work with Linux software repositories. In fact, a distro like Ubuntu offers at least four different ways, including a command-line option and multiple GUI-based tools.

The question is whether this situation was creating confusion among Ubuntu users, especially those who recently switched from Windows. The folks at Canonical apparently thought this was the case.

Earlier this year, Canonical floated the concept of what became known as the "Ubuntu Software Store." It was an unfortunate choice for a name, even if Canonical had been prepared actually to use the tool to selling software. It isn't, and it won't be for at least a year.

Before it released Ubuntu Linux 9.10 last week, Canonical wisely decided to rename the Ubuntu Software Store. It is now known as Software Center, and Canonical is positioning it as a next-generation replacement for Ubuntu's other software-management tools.

I have been working with Software Center for a while now. It hasn't knocked my socks off, but I also don't see why so many Ubuntu users are screaming bloody murder over it. It remains one option among several; all of Ubuntu's other software management tools are still available and still work exactly like they always have.

The problem is that even aside from the "Software Store" naming snafu, Canonical's efforts to market Software Center to Ubuntu users are unrealistic.

The Ubuntu wiki offers a draft roadmap that shows how Canonical expects the Software Center concept to evolve. The current iteration is the first of at least four planned updates, which means that this is still very much a work in progress.

This time around, the development team was focused on two major goals: creating a stable, secure user interface for Software Center and promoting the tool as the "next generation" Ubuntu software management tool. The first goal is appropriate, but the second one is clearly jumping the gun.

Consider, for example, that the ability to display and install non-graphical software won't appear until the next Software Center release, which is scheduled to accompany Ubuntu 10.04 in April 2010. This is also the point where Ubuntu's developers actually expect to drop the popular Synaptic Package Manager from Ubuntu in favor of Software Center.

The ability to purchase commercial software from within Software Center -- the obvious reason for the tool's previous name -- will finally arrive with Ubuntu 10.10 in October 2010.

By April 2011, Software Center will have some truly interesting features, including recommendation tools, multi-system package management, and the ability to handle software package conflicts seamlessly. It's an exciting prospect, and it promises to deliver a software-management paradigm that could on its own justify switching to desktop Linux.

It is too much to suggest that Canonical should have tagged Software Center as a beta release. This is clearly production-quality software, even if it still lacks most of the features that will make it a true replacement even for Ubuntu's existing "Add/Remove Applications" feature, much less for tools like Synaptic Package Manager or the tried-and-true APT command-line utility.

Do I sympathize with users who think Software Center is a disaster for Ubuntu? Absolutely not. But I do think that Canonical should think twice about its ambitious timetable for pushing Software Center as a fully-baked solution to its users' software-management challenges.

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