Can Open Source Songbird Compete with iTunes?

Thursday Apr 16th 2009 by Adam Stone
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Whether the open source music app can challenge iTunes is an open question, but Songbird's add-ons are certainly attractive.

With the open source music player Songbird finally making its v1.0 debut this past December after two years in development, the big question swirling around Songbird continues to be whether or not this Mozilla-based player will be able to give iTunes a run for its money.

It might be an unfair question, though; after all, iTunes is the most popular media library app going. iTunes is free and it supports virtually all the top audio and video formats. Plus it's built to mesh seamlessly with the near-ubiquitous iPod and iPhone.

But hey, didn't they same the same about Firefox? Surely this upstart browser couldn't make a dent in Internet Explorer's dominance. They were wrong, and maybe it's too early to pass judgment on Songbird, which after is all based on Mozilla's Gecko engine, the same tool that powers Firefox.

If Songbird is going to give iTunes a run for its money, the newly-released music player had better be ready to deliver the goods. In our experience, it is.

First up is the sheer openness of the app, especially relative to iTunes. We've long been frustrated by iTunes' apparent desire to manage and control every aspect of the user experience. Apple has iTunes locked up tight, but fortunately that's not the case with Songbird.

Perhaps as an outgrowth of its open-source roots, Songbird just feels freer. Files are easy to manage and options are easy to configure. There isn't the same fear factor that sometimes has users hovering in uncertainty as they manage their libraries in iTunes.

Setup is also quick and easy. Media can be imported directly from your own files or from iTunes. We found Songbird was able to scan and catalog our entire music collection quickly and accurately.

A lean installation wizard makes short work of installing any or all of six add-ons that come pre-packaged with Songbird. This is where things get interesting. It's with the add-ons that Songbird really flies.

Our favorite by far is MashTape, which appears as a bottom-of-the-screen pane. MashTape tabs give quick access to artist info (bio, discography, etc.), reviews, news, Flickr photos, and YouTube videos. For all-in-one content to augment the listening experience, MashTape is an easy to use, outstanding bit of fun.

Other ready-to-roll add-ons include QuickTime Playback, as well as a SHOUTcase tool that delivers a Songbird-native interface for browsing and playback of SHOUTcast Internet Radio streams. It lets you manage the experience through station bookmarks, genre filters, and other means.

The Concerts plug-in will search Web sources for tour dates that match up with artists in your library, and can be configured to search by location. With the Last.fm tool you can update your Last.fm profile with music you've been playing through Songbird.

Next page: Add-ons

In a hint of what may become a showdown with iTunes somewhere down the line, Songbird add-ons also include a tool for iPod support. According to the developers, this add-on will allow a user to play songs from an iPod's library and playlist through Songbird and to synchronize the device with the Songbird library. Songs also can be copied from your iPod.

In addition to the six preinstalled add-ons, Songbird can access 70 more add-ons. We are especially keen on LyricMaster, which will automatically display the words to a song if embedded via metadata, or else fetch the lyrics if necessary. We find this to be a very cool addition, as we can never remember and/or decipher the words to many songs.

All these bells and whistles have come about through deep collaborations in the open source community. Members of the Songbird development team (they refer to themselves as Pioneers of the Inevitable) have worked on a few media players and Internet applications you may be slightly familiar with, including Winamp, Yahoo! Music Jukebox, Netscape Navigator, and Firefox.

Core development is being supported by Sequoia Capital, Atlas Venture, and a group of angel investors. The Pioneers credit "thousands" of developers and contributors who have helped produce add-ons and patches.

For those of technical bent, a few noteworthy Songbird features include support for MP3, FLAC, and Vorbis on all platforms; WMA and WMA DRM on Windows; and AAC and Fairplay on Windows and Mac. GStreamer serves as the main media playback system across all platforms. The app currently runs on Windows (Vista and XP), Linux and Mac (OS X), and supports automatic updates.

The developers promise further tools in the near future. They say they'd like to expand device support, which right now does not include Apple iPhones, iPod Touch, and Microsoft Zune devices.

While Songbird supports reading from and writing metadata to many music file formats, developers are in beta with the ability to retrieve additional metadata from popular lookup services. Likewise there is a beta effort to fetch album art. Another enhancement would allow users to subscribe to music blogs and download music directly to their libraries.

Also on the to-do list is CD ripping and further video integration. A detailed roadmap lays out the direction of future enhancements, along with timelines that some have called ambitious given Songbird's already prolonged two-year build time.

In the meantime, we have our quibbles, most particularly the tendency to hog resources. Songbird was slow to launch and sometimes slow to run. It wasn't enough of a problem to merit a serious complaint, at least not on our system, but it's certainly something to watch for.

Bottom line, we really like what Songbird has to offer. It surely has taken the developers a while to get to their first full-fleshed released, but perhaps that is just in the nature of open source. Collaborative efforts take time.

To our thinking it has been worth the wait and we will definitely be watching to see how things evolve as this versatile app begins to stake its claim in the marketplace.

Article courtesy of WinPlanet.

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