Let’s Set Our Music Free

November 15, 2008

Entertainment, Social Networking


I am not someone who believes in music piracy.  I buy music.  And if I download a song for some reason, I have to go out and buy the music at some point in the near future.  I guess I have a finely tuned inner voice (call it the Holy Spirit) that doesn’t let me get away with stealing.  But I do believe that I should be able to listen to music (that I have purchased) anywhere and everywhere I go.  For this reason, I rip every CD I have into MP3 format.  And when I download music, I try and buy music that is not encumbered with DRM technology.

But like most music enthusiasts, I have had to settle with Apple’s music ecosphere for far too long.  I do love iTunes.  But it is a very pretty walled garden.  I can have anything and everything that Steve Jobs wants me to have.  I can even have video and games – as long as I buy them from him.  And I can even have “DRM free” music (called iTunes Plus) – as long as I buy it from the iTunes store.

But if I buy content from other sources (or rip it from obscure CD’s I own), it is dreadfully difficult to add it to my iTunes library.  Yes, I can use Amazon’s store and install their add-on software.  And I can use MusicPass (from Sony/BMG).  But both of these technologies have an uneasy feel about their integration with iTunes.  It’s all getting better and better.  But integration advances are under the control of Apple.  All they have to do is change iTunes versions and unilaterally disable anything done by other people (or organizations).

And that’s where Songbird comes in.  Songbird is an open source media player that is based upon the Mozilla foundation.  And this week, the Songbird team is getting very close to offering a competitive product to the iTunes ecosphere.  This week, they released the second release candidate for Songbird 1.0.  And while they ask bloggers and editors to refrain from comments until the software is stabilized, I still have to provide a glimpse into what will soon be available – a world free from the rules of Steve’s Matrix.

Songbird does the basics with ease.  You can organize all of your music/media files with ease.  And the interface is familiar enough.  I am a little concerned that too much of iTunes’ “look-and-feel” may be incorporated.  And with that, there is risk that Apple may take legal action against the Songbird team.  But there are enough differences in “look-and-feel” that this will be difficult to prove in a court of law.  And I hope that Apple will not challenge Songbird in court.  Rather, I hope that Songbird will be seen as the competition that Apple needs in order to make their product even better.

While Songbird gets the basics down cold, it is the new and innovative touches that are so much more impressive.  Songbird is trying to make a competitive ecosphere to the iTunes ecosphere – and they are doing a pretty good job of it so far.  So what is the Songbird team doing rght:

– There is an add-on / plugin architecture that is showing some initial success – and a whole lot of promise.  If developers start creating new add-ons, the future promise of the platform will be amazing.  As new technologies are developed, they can be plugged straight into Songbird.  So we won’t have to wait upon a new mega-release from Apple.  Rather, we can incorporate those changes that we need from any number of competing software developers.

– The core HTML rendering engine (Gecko) is quite an improvement over the rendering that is based upon the Safari engine.  Yes, there is a great deal of similarity between Gecko and Webkit.  And there is a lot to like about Webkit.  But Gecko is still a superior application infrastructure – at least, for now.

– Using the add-on foundation, there is some excellent Last.fm integration already available.  There is insufficient room to discuss all the cool things about Last.fm.  But here is the short version: Last.fm is an exceptional system for collecting immense amounts of metadata about personal music libraries.  And I can use Last.fm to build a community around the music I listen to, the music of my friends, the music of my favorite bands, and the music of bands I might like to listen to.  And whereas the Last.fm folks do have a plugin for iTunes, the integration in Songbird is “out of the box” – and can be revised/extended via the add-on / plugin framework.

– There are a couple of very good add-ons for the Twitter community.  Unlike the iTunes add-on (from Last.fm), I have direct control over which songs I want to tweet about.  So I can send an occasional tweet about who I’m listening to – rather than flooding my Twitter feed with every song every few minutes.  This is incredibly important as I want folks to know when I’m listening to music – but don’t want to swamp them with a flood of tweets.  When I was scrobbling all 5500+ songs in my library (over a two-week period) this would have been catastrophic to my followers.

– There are some very cool add-ons that are still a little bit unstable.  For example, I really like having access to a lyrics database that is online.  But at this point in time, the lyrics add-on is a little unstable.  So I’ve turned it off.  But the fact that I can enable and disable this features with very little effort is so very encouraging to me.  It shows that the plugin framework is robust and manageable.

– I can’t wait to see the next series of plugins that will show up.  Personally, I am very interested in seeing Musicbrainz integration.  Musicbrainz has a very nifty song fingerprinting system that can be used for obscure CD’s that might not be in Apple’s library.  And up until a few months ago, this included Beatles CD’s.    So I used MusicBrainz to determine which album art and which ID3 tags to associate with CD’s I couldn’t get recognized by iTunes.  Again, I would rather work with a community source of metadata rather than a corporation that seeks to “provide” and “manage” metadata about my music.

There are a couple of things that still need to be ironed out before the final 1.0 release.  Some of the add-ons that are available need to be stabilized.  And some of the core needs some performance tweaks.  And I still think there are some race conditions present in hte Vista code.  But I’m sure that will all get ironed out in the next couple of weeks.

But the single largest element that is missing is the tight integration of a music store.  I’m a little conflicted over this item.  Songbird really needs this to be competitive.  But it needs to be done in a way that any number of stores could be used.  I would love to see integration with Wal-Mart, Amazon and a host of others.  But I wonder how that can be done in short order.  In any case, I really would love to see cleaner and sharper purchasing capabilities.  That way, I can buy new songs I find.  I don’t want to go through ridiculous hoops in order to purchase and import music into my library.

Bottom Line: Songbird is an exceptional platform for building an entire music ecosystem.  And its architecture is fundamentally extensible in a way that iTunes never will be.  I can’t wait to see how my new media player evolves.


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One Comment on “Let’s Set Our Music Free”

  1. cyclingroo Says:

    While there isn’t an integrated store, there are some links to purchasing capabilities. In RC2, there is a service entitled “The Hype Machine” that scours the web for what appears to be music-related articles and blog posts. And part of the service assembles song titles referenced in the posting as well as links to music stores that offer purchase / download of the songs. So the basics are available. There just needs to be a little more fit ‘n’ finish touches to make this more seamless.


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