Songbird 1.0 Is One Small Step for a Media Player One Giant Leap for Web Media
Do you remember when you first fell in love with Firefox? How you got over your initial skepticism of an Internet Explorer alternative and quickly realized how much sweeter the HTML tasted, rendered by an open source browser? How you gawked at the thousands of add-ons you never knew you were missing? Prepare to fall in love again with Songbird, an open source media player that's set to revolutionize media and the web.
Songbird is a cross-platform, open source music player supported by Mozilla, which has its sights firmly set on iTunes users. Songbird has support for iPod syncing, so you can finally free your little white box. On first run, Songbird prompts the user to scan for media. If it finds an iTunes library, it offers to import it (including playlists, song ratings and play counts) and keep Songbird up to date with changes made in iTunes. This means if you create playlists, rate songs, add music or edit file info in iTunes, Songbird will automatically scan for and reflect those changes when it starts. When the user reaches Songbird's main screen, they'll see a familiar vista; Songbird's default media view looks almost identical to iTunes with two exceptions: the play controls are on the bottom, and more interestingly, Songbird displays tabs on the top, just like Firefox.
Next Generation Media Player
Underneath the faux iTunes sheen, Songbird is running Mozilla's Firefox engine, so it integrates media playback with web content in ways other media players have never done. With such tight web integration, Songbird holds promise to revolutionize the way users interact with music and video online. While iTunes extends users' libraries with the iTunes Store, it's a walled garden. The Internet contains so many avenues for exploration, and Songbird provides users with the open platform from which to set off on expeditions. Songbird lets users stream and save files from music blogs as playlists, and offers a search bar to dig through Google and other audio search services. Additionally, sites that take advantage of Songbird's APIs can request access to the user's library to make music suggestions or otherwise serve dynamically generated content based on what you listen to. For these reasons and more, Songbird is part of the next generation of media players.
Just like in Firefox, Songbird add-ons provide additional functionality. The most popular Firefox plugins are available for Songbird: Adblock Plus, Greasemonkey, FlashGot and ChatZilla, to name a few. However, the most exciting add-ons hook into Songbird's library and media views, and bring information about your bands that's scattered across the Internet all into the same place you listen to music. Check out these essential add-ons:
- LyricMaster does an excellent job of quickly and reliably finding and displaying lyrics for currently playing songs
- MashTape retrieves flickr photos, YouTube videos, news from various sources and discography info for whatever artist you're listening to
- Directory Browser allows users to browse for media on their drive using an expandable file tree like Windows Explorer, which is especially useful for media not already in one's library
- LiveTweeter can automatically or selectively tweet your currently playing song to your Twitter account, notifying your friends that you're listening to Millie Jackson's "E.S.P." again
With an open architecture and integrated web browser, Songbird poses new security risks that a closed system like iTunes does not. A quick look at security options in Songbird's preferences reveals options nearly identical to those in Firefox. Web security options have their own preference pane, as does each add-on, making it easy for users to find the preferences they're looking for. Control freaks will note that, by default, Songbird provides sites with generous access to information on your music library, and allows sites to control media playback. More cautious users will want to disable this. Songbird also automatically updates itself and add-ons by default, another functional faux pas.
Performance and Stability
Songbird does suffer from some performance and stability problems typical of a version 1.0 release. Its iTunes library import feature is painfully slow and devours system resources when working with large libraries, and the whole program becomes unresponsive (on OS X, at least) while importing. I wanted to play with preferences, but was unable to reach them, or even to cancel the process while Songbird first imported my library. I needed to force quit, unplug my external drive and then restart Songbird to prevent it from automatically starting the import process again. After tinkering and resuming the import, Songbird froze my whole system and I needed to hard restart. The application lost any progress it had made importing my iTunes library, and was unable to resume the process. I had to completely uninstall and reinstall the application in order to successfully import my iTunes library, but it finally worked.
I was already uncertain about setting loose a new piece of software on the fruits of years' worth of CD ripping, Soulseek searching and friends' recommendations, and Songbird's library-related application errors made my heart plummet into my stomach for the few minutes before I confirmed that no data was lost. Please, please, please make sure you backup your library before trying Songbird. I don't want to hear about any music nerds crying when they lose their rare live recording of Mike Patton singing backing vocals on Radiohead's "Let Down" (sick version, by the way).
Songbird is an excellent project, and this is a strong version 1.0 from the development community. The project holds a lot of promise, not only for Songbird itself, but promise to revolutionize media applications the same way Firefox did for web browsers. That said, this version has significant problems; performance and stability issues will scare away inexperienced users, and Songbird still lacks CD ripping, video viewing, and strong podcast support, essential features for most users. If you're a casual user who is comfortable with your current media player, stick with it for now, but keep an eye on Songbird. Open Media Boston will keep you apprised. If you're a music enthusiast or an early adopter, I strongly recommend you check it out.