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What the heck are Ubuntu Unity's Scopes?

With Canonical prepared to launch Ubuntu-powered phones, I try to figure out the most frustrating feature of the Ubuntu Unity interface.

ubuntu wood planks
Credit: blumblaum via Flickr/Creative Commons

I've had a rather tumultuous history with Ubuntu. For a few years, it was my primary system – I shouted praises of its glory from my rooftop. But, somehow, between then and now… things changed.

And by "things changed," I mean "Canonical introduced the Unity user interface."

Unity isn't terrible, mind you. I simply don't like it very much. And part of that, I assume, is that I haven't been able to fully understand the intricacies of how Canonical wants me to use my computer (or my phone).

One of the elements of Ubuntu Unity that I have been able to handle the least is Scopes. Part of that is due to the fact that Canonical has done a pretty terrible job of properly showing people what Scopes are and what they do. The other part is… no… actually, that's really the whole problem. Here is how Ubuntu defines this feature:

"Scopes are a complete reinvention of the content and services experience. Users have a new way to access content and apps without having to download individual apps – and developers have the opportunity to be discovered via the device's categorized home screens."

Oh, it's a "complete reinvention of the content and services experience," is it? Well there you go. That explains it completely. (Where's the sarcasm tag…)

The Wikipedia page doesn't do much better:

"Scope is a search engine of Dash. The search query is thrown by Lens."

What is "Lens," you ask?

"Lens is a channel to throw the search query to Scope and show the search result."

All of which is, as far as I can tell, completely meaningless, and has little to nothing to do with what "Scopes" and "Lenses" are.

After spending many weeks living with Ubuntu on a tablet (a Nexus 7), on-and-off over the last year, I hadn't gotten any closer to appreciating Scopes. So, on a recent episode of a podcast that I record, I posed a challenge to the Ubuntu Scope-lovers of the world:

If you can fully explain to me how Scopes should be used – and convince me that I actually want to use them – I will go on stage at the SCALE (the Southern California Linux Expo) and publicly apologize to Ubuntu for giving it such a hard time. And declare that Ubuntu, Unity and Scopes are awesome. This will be videotaped (“Videotaped”? What is this, the ‘80’s?) and posted to YouTube so that everyone can enjoy the moment.

Unfortunately, thus far, the community has been unable to show me how Unity’s Scopes are better than, say… anything else.

But it’s not for a lack of trying, and they have made some progress. A friend of mine with whom I record said podcast (Stuart Langridge) recorded a video wherein he attempted to show me the glory of Scopes. And it helped to improve my opinion of Canonical’s little-feature-that-could a fair bit. Whereas I used to abhor the idea of using Scopes (which I could not fully wrap my head around), I now consider it merely “pointless.”

It seems to me that Scopes are, in essence, mini-applications that run within a sort of application container, essentially like Android Home screen widgets. Only less customizable (you can’t place them wherever you’d like), and requiring additional steps to navigate to. If you want to navigate to, say, a Wikipedia Scope, you either need to swipe N number of times until you find it… or you swipe up from the bottom, scroll until you find it in a listbox, and then tap/click it to launch that “Scope,” thus making it an application that’s harder to launch than applications on most platforms. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not exactly awesome and exciting.

You may be asking yourself, "Bryan… why are you telling me all this?"

One reason – Canonical has stated that Ubuntu-powered phones will be shipping any time now. And I really want to want one. I want to get one… and I want to like it. Being as Scopes is a central part of Canonical’s new platform (and, yes, I consider Unity w/Scopes to be an entirely new platform that bears almost no resemblance to the desktop Linux distribution that we’ve all known as “Ubuntu” over the years) I need to either learn to love Scopes… or I need to figure out how to explain to the Canonical team why, exactly, I don’t like them.

So I am putting this out there in the hopes that one of you can show me a real-world example of why Scopes are awesome. Post your thoughts, your explanations… heck, even links to videos showcasing the best that Scopes can be.

Bonus points if you can work it into a poem somehow.

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