Friday, July 1, 2011

How I tried (and failed) to use Ubuntu One

For the last year, I've been following all of the excitement in the blog world surrounding Ubuntu One.  Ubuntu One, for those who've had their head buried under a rock, is a Canonical created cloud storage service similar to or Dropbox.  The service gives you two gigabytes of online storage and automatically keeps the folders and files you define in sync between multiple computers. It allows you to easily share your data with anyone on the next with the simple click of a mouse and, best of all, it lets you stream music stored in the cloud directly to your PC or Android device.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know I'm very wary of storing my data in the cloud. Much of my fear was confirmed a few weeks ago when it was  revealed that data sync'd with the popular and dominate Dropbox service was transmitted completely unencrypted and only secured 'at some point later' on their server. While I see the attraction of the cloud, I don't think the convenience is worth the risk associated with it.

But Ubuntu One was different. Since it came from an open source company, I thought 'I can probably trust these guys' and I went ahead and set up the client on my machine. My impetus for doing this had a lot to do with the fact that I had just lost a lot of data due to a hard disk crash and I thought Ubuntu One was probably a pretty great way to make sure that didn't happen again.

After configuring my account, I spent a few minutes creating symbolic links in the "Ubuntu One" directory to my /Documents, /Pictures, /Music. and /Projects directories and I was all excited as I waited to watch my (encrypted) data stream to the cloud.

It didn't.  In fact, the only thing that happened is that the folders that were symbolically linked were created on the Ubuntu One server, but not a single byte of the data they contained was moved into the cloud.

After waiting for almost two hours, I decided something had to be wrong and went to the forums to see if I could find anyone else having a similar problem to mine. I found a few people and it didn't seem like there was an easy solution except 'make sure you actually added your computer'. Isn't that part of configuring the client? Wasn't that the very first thing I did?  Still, I went and unlinked my machine and added it again just in case.

Still nothing.

Back to the forums I went and posted a question basically asking 'WTF? My Ubuntu One is Broke!' and I clearly described my problem, giving all of the necessarily information. That was three days ago and I still haven't gotten a response from anyone.

Looking through the forums, however, I saw lots of problems with the software. I saw people complaining about it crashing on Windows (what doesn't?), people complaining about it not syncing all of their data, and even complaints of data loss while using the service. All around a service that's been out for two full releases now. Why are we still having these problems?

So I disabled Ubuntu One and I installed Dropbox. Dropbox works and works well. Their security may be crap but I can get around that by storing my data in a TrueCrypt container so it's all encrypted on my machine before being sent to the cloud. Dropbox was fast and easy to configure and it worked from the very first moment it was running. So far, I haven't had a single support issue with the software while I see even more issues have arisen on the Ubuntu One forum; more unanswered questions too.

Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical (the company that makes Ubuntu) said in a press conference that Canonicals goal was to bring on 200 million new users to the Ubuntu desktop in the next four years. I can say definitively that if one of Ubuntu's selling points to those users is in any way related to Ubuntu One, they are going to massively fail. Two releases into the program and it's still not stable enough for reliable, everyday use. The Windows client, while still in beta and kind of newish, just doesn't work on some machines and it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon. In the meantime, Canonical is pushing forward with new Ubuntu One version for Android, iPhone, and Mac, that will likely suffer many of the same problems.

When I've talked negatively about Ubuntu One on IRC, I was immediately told to shut up. Everyone's system is different! It can't be expected to work seamlessly on every system. Why not?  This is not a hardware issue which is where the 'everyone's system is different' argument would actually make sense. Canonical controls the operating system and, to a large degree, everyone's basic operating system is the same. Why can't the company that makes the operating system also make a program that runs reliably on that operating system. It's not like they're having to integrate with some undocumented API or anything. They are simply writing a program to work on their own operating system. That's not rocket science hard.

Personally, I think Canonical has bitten off more than it could chew with Ubuntu One. They were too aggressive with its deployment, too congratulatory of its features, and too inattentive to its problems. If it's going to replace Dropbox on most users machines, it's going to have to offer a compelling and, most importantly, reliable experience to users. Until then, the software will stay in its little corner to be played with every now and then to see how far it's come and then quickly replaced by Dropbox or something else.

Wake up Canonical! 400 million users aren't going to come with broken software! We in the Linux world are constantly telling people how superior the OS is to everything else, about how great the quality of the software written using the open source paradigm is and yet we can't get a simple file syncing program to work right? That gives Linux a black eye and will only drive people quicker into the arms of Apple and Microsoft.

Does Canonical really want to be the reason people choose Apple and Microsoft? I would hope not but a lot is going to have to change if they want to avoid that fate. Ubuntu One is an important factor in that change and, I'm afraid it's being paid way to little attention. Will Dropbox continue to dominate even the Ubuntu desktop when it comes to file syncing?

That is a question that only Canonical can answer. What are your thoughts?


duanedesign said...

Sorry to hear Ubuntu One did not work as expected. The issue is that Ubuntu One does not follow symbolic links. To sync your ~/Pictures ~/Documents folders just right-click and select 'Sync with Ubuntu One'.

karni said...

You've used it for a week, seems got no proper answer on Ubuntu forums, and it turns out all you had to do is click the FAQ link at the bottom of page.