Ubuntu One: Ubuntu’s cloud platform and its benefits explained

If there’s one thing that now sets Ubuntu apart from other Linux distributions it’s not that it has a strong emphasis on desktop ease of use or even that it’s garnered such a large following. It’s that Canonical is trying to find ways to turn a completely free desktop operating system into a profitable enterprise. Other companies leverage Linux for profit too – Red Hat and Novell come to mind – but they do so by selling support to corporate clients. No-one has really tried to monetise the desktop.

And why not? Free software is not the same as a free lunch and one of the reasons Ubuntu is so good is that its development is funded by Canonical itself operating from a fund that will eventually run out.

So how can you make money from a free desktop operating system? Like corporate clients (which Ubuntu does have as well) the answer lies in selling services not software. For desktop users that means taking advantage of the growing popularity of the cloud.

Ubuntu One
Canonical has steadily been raising the profile of Ubuntu One but gave it a big push and promotion with the release of Ubuntu 10.10. At its core Ubuntu One is a collection of cloud services to provide online storage contact syncing direct desktop to web publishing bookmark and notes syncing and real-time music streaming. It’s also cross-platform (or will be with a Windows client on the way). It also integrates the new Ubuntu music store but more on that in a moment.

This is quite a suite of services and naturally – with the exception of the free basic package – they come with various levels of paid subscription. So are they worth it?

The current Ubuntu One dialog is basic but allows you to limit bandwidth and add or remove devices.

Simple storage
The basic package which anyone is free to sign up for is 2GB of online cloud storage. You don’t actually have to be an Ubuntu user to take advantage of this but if you are you’ll find Ubuntu One has been tightly integrated into the distribution. You can synchronise local folders such as Documents Music Videos and Pictures automatically share files and folders directly to the web from the desktop and manage your account including setting which of your devices have access (and to limit bandwidth used).

By default you can synchronise Firefox bookmarks (requires installation of a Firefox plug-in) your instant message and social media conversations Evolution contacts notes from Tomboy and of course files.

Integration makes it simple: key folders like Music Pictures and Documents for the current user in Nautilus have a new ribbon at the top of the file list to synchronise with Ubuntu One. If you want to synchronise these it’s as simple as clicking the check box. You can of course also set up sychronisation for any other folder on your system.

Synchronising a folder to the cloud.

Folders set to synchronise also allow you to right-click on any file in the folder and select ‘Publish’ which then makes the file publicly accessible from the cloud. Once published right-clicking on the file again and selecting ‘Copy web link’ puts a direct URL to the file into your copy/paste buffer for emailing or instant messaging.

It’s simple and effective but what if you want more than 2GB? The pricing plan for storage is purchased in 20GB blocks at US$2.99 a month or alternatively US$29.99 a year (the savvy will note that’s two month’s free if paying a year in advance). These rates apply for each 20GB pack you add which makes it easy to expand your storage only as you approach your limit.

The fact that the base package of 2GB is free gives you little reason not to use it; however perhaps the most interesting features are the mobile and music services.

Music on the move
Beyond cloud storage Ubuntu One offers a little something extra: the Ubuntu One Mobile package extends cloud services to your phone which is a little more impressive than it sounds.

Firstly it allows you to sync your mobile phone contacts with Ubuntu One a simple but rather useful feature to have. Aside from making it easy to transfer your contacts when upgrading phones it means you also have a backup accessible from anywhere (should your phone be lost or stolen).

Sync your iPhone contacts to the Ubuntu One cloud…

More than this however is how the Ubuntu One music store accessible from the Rhythmbox music player is integrated – any purchased songs are automatically transferred to your cloud storage in addition to downloading locally. Beyond simply having a backup of your music it comes with one other benefit: you can stream your collection directly to your phone wherever you are as long as you have an internet connection. Even multimedia mastermind Apple hasn’t seen fit to offer such as service yet.

Both of these functions of contact syncing and music streaming are enabled by apps already available for both iPhone in the App Store and Android in the Market.

Grand though it sounds it is of course a service dependent on the quality of your link. In testing the streaming did indeed work as promised allowing me to browse and play a collection of albums purchased through Ubuntu One but it did drop out occasionally over the 3G connection. Switching to wireless at home provided an uninterruptible link. The app on the iPhone (haven’t tested Android) takes advantage of its multitasking capabilities so you can start streaming music and then switch to other apps.

…and stream your music from it too.

Speaking of which while the Ubuntu One music store doesn’t have anywhere near as comprehensive a marketplace as iTunes its prices were lower. For the bands I could find on both services an iTunes album was $16.99 while the same album from Ubuntu One was €9.99 (approx. $13) about $4 an album cheaper. As it turns out the service draws on the resources of UK-based 7digital and if you can’t find particular songs or bands on Ubuntu’s music store you might find them on 7digital for the same low price.

The cost of the mobile service is US$3.99 a month or US$39 per year (again two months free if paying yearly).

Head in the clouds
For what it provides Ubuntu One works surprisingly well. And yet it’s still under active development and a strong focus for Canonical. There are some rough edges at times – the Ubuntu One program (accessible from the top-right user menu) provides only the basic status of syncing and you need to manually disconnect and reconnect if you want to force a sync – but these issues are slowly being worked on.

Music purchased is automatically synced to the cloud and your PC.

Tips for the cloud
The Ubuntu One panel gadget was removed from Maverick to prevent message spam from sync updates. However a new gadget developed by one of the Ubuntu developers restores most of this functionality and keeps it unobtrusive. To install it run the following from a Terminal:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:rye/ubuntuone-extras
sudo apt-get install ubuntuone-indicator

Then run it from Applications > Other.

Ubuntu One’s status indicator drop-down.

2. Purchased music from the Ubuntu One store automatically shows up for music streaming in the iPhone and Android apps but how do you add your current collection to also be streamed? The answer is simply in which Ubuntu One folder is used by the streaming service and it’s not (unfortunately) your ‘Music’ folder. To synchronise and make available your other music copy the files to ‘/home/[your username]/.ubuntuone/Purchased from Ubuntu One’ (press Ctrl-H in Nautilus to see hidden directories) then let the folder sync.

Note that currently the Ubuntu One streaming servers only recognise id3 tags from MP3 files. If you have music in other formats (such as M4A from Apple iTunes music) they are playable but will show up as ‘Unknown’ in the streaming service. Expanded format support will be added in future but for now you need to convert any songs you want streamed to MP3.

3. The Ubuntu One dialog launched from your username menu is effective but simple. If you want to get more feedback over the syncing process and don’t mind going commando at the command line open up a terminal and run: ‘u1sdtool –help’.  You’ll find all sorts of options to control and monitor the syncing process.