February 24, 2006

Songbird media browser debut a crashing success

Author: Stephen Feller

Songbird, an open source media player built on the Firefox browser engine, debuted this month to fanfare from a few blogs heralding it as the second coming of digital music. For a while on the day of its release it was such a popular download that it caused the servers hosting it to crash.

Songbird version 0.1, a proof-of-concept release with only a few functional features, is a music player and Web browser that autodetects and imports most music file formats on users computers and in Web pages. The browser is currently available to download for Windows, with ports to Mac OS X and Linux in progress.

The plethora of stores that can be accessed through only one music player, such as iTunes, Napster, and Musicmatch, is limiting consumers' adoption of digital media, says Rob Lord, project lead on Songbird and founder and chief executive of Pioneers of the Inevitable (POTI), the company developing the browser. Lord says Songbird's creators want the application to centralize users' interaction with digital music files.

Lord compares proprietary music stores to the early online services era dominated by America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy, when users of those different services could not email each other. He says that by focusing on the music, rather than formats, stores, and players, the digital music industry will grow because playing songs will be easier for users.

"In the desktop media space," Lord says, "there is, by and large, a feeling that these proprietary silos of service and software are the right approach. We believe that the Web ... is the better approach. A music consumer shouldn't have to switch their player to switch services."

Developing functionality

Songbird 0.1 has limited functionality, and is capable of finding media only in local directories and on Web pages visited in the browser. It also plays music files in formats such as MP3, WMA, Ogg Vorbis and FLAC, and recognizes ID3 tags. Because Songbird aims to be "agnostic to DRM and codec," Lord says that the goal is for the browser to work with any file format, protectionary software, or portable device. According to Lord, the application will eventually be able to act as a download manager for online music stores such as eMusic, Beatport and Real's Rhapsody, be able to synchronize files with portable devices, and play most, if not all, of the music file formats out there.

The Songbird roadmap details plans up through version 0.3, though Lord says POTI is sticking with vague projections for release dates so it can focus on the application rather than deadlines. Version 0.1.1 is slated to have an improved user interface, a preferences menu with proxy settings, and possibly playback of protected Windows Media Audio (WMA) files. Version 0.2 should see Songbird available for Mac and Linux, as well as a public build and source control system, and the multicore playback application programming interface (API) for the variety of sound files available for download. The API interacts with files on users' hard drives, for tasks such as to check WMA file licenses and play music files protected by digital rights management (DRM) software.

Lord says Songbird can now or will be able to play files sold by stores like Napster, Yahoo!, and Rhapsody. Developers face more of a challenge, however, in enabling files bought from iTunes because of what he says are Apple's recent efforts to further close off its format from working with other software.

The open source project is based on Mozilla's cascading style sheets (CSS), JavaScript, and XULRunner tools. POTI has already contributed back to the Mozilla code base, from bug fixes to writing code for a click-to slider that lets Songbird users adjust the player's volume or select a playback position in files.

Brendan Eich, chief technology officer at Mozilla, said POTI developers' use of XULRunner has pushed forward development of that tool. Eich says Mozilla may look to incorporate some new ideas from Songbird, suggesting that GUI widgets Songbird is expected to create may be added to the XULRunner toolkit.

Web music stores stand to benefit

Although Apple broke the dam of digital music use and sales with its iPod player and iTunes application, Lord says Web stores that follow the iTunes model are holding users back. "They took a seven-layer cake and made it a nine-layer cake -- [that's] awesome," Lord says. "[But] I think the media management that focuses not on a file folder, but on the metadata, and to realize that music is artist, album, and song, is an important development in digital media."

As much as Songbird makes it easier for users to find music files on blogs and music company Web sites, it is stores such as eMusic, Beatport, Bleep, DownloadPunk, and others that require nothing more than a Web browser to buy and download music that may benefit the most.

eMusic Chief Executive Officer David Pakman says he is a "big supporter" of the Songbird concept, and that his company intents to write a plugin for the media browser and take advantage of other opportunities to integrate more tightly with it. "We're a digital music retailer," says Pakman, "all we care about is selling music. We're not interested in requiring our users to use a piece of software that is more interested in seeking mass adoption of a format or technology."

As measured by downloads, eMusic is the second-largest of the digital music stores, selling about five million songs a month and surpassed 100,000 subscribers in November, Pakman says. The store is subscription based -- users pay for one of three levels of downloads a month, can buy additional download bundles and receive free rein over how and where they use files.

For other iTunes competitors, such as the electronic music store Beatport, Songbird may help draw in new customers because of its ease of use. Shawn Sabo, director of marketing and public relations for Beatport, said the store sells its files in several formats, including MP3 and uncompressed WAV files, because its customers run the gamut from casual music fans to professional DJs who need high-quality recordings for the large sound systems they play on.

Sabo says that while Beatport offers users a download manager and player, the site "supports so many different formats [because] we want you to be able to use them on anything."

Creating new standards

Part of developing Songbird, Lord says, is also finding ways to standardize media-player technology. In addition to making it easier for listeners to find and play music files, POTI is working on ways for people to share music, whether it is to better interact with playlist sharing services such as Webjay or to build their own Web sites featuring music -- all through Songbird.

Lord says that the attention Songbird got within the first hours of its release, and the fact that the attention crippled their servers, is encouraging. "It's really good there's a proof-of-concept out there," Lord says. "It engages the community in a discussion.... There are no protocols and standards for digital media, and there's no community developing on standards and formats. Songbird is trying to be the center of developing this."

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