A look at SongBird 0.2-pre

I just installed Songbird, the open source alternative to iTunes that’s built using the Mozilla XUL engine. It works and it seems pretty stable, but there are still a few things missbehaving. Namely:

1. Both the black and white themes are terrible and unusable. There are no clear cut lines to easily distinguish between widgets (especially in the attribute TAG dialog) and that makes the UI very tiresome. iTunes’ widgets and shades of colors used on the UI is way more pleasant as the brain doesn’t have to try hard to distinguish what is what and where one group of widgets starts and where it ends.
2. The Playlist bar on the left is too long and too filled up with crap. Sure, you can remove whatever you don’t need, but “defaults matter”. And the “Services” list is pretty long too.
3. It doesn’t support Bonjour and so I can’t load my husband’s iTunes library from his Mac on my Windows PC running Songbird. I can’t share either.
4. Each time I click on one of the services and then I go back to “Library” Songbird does not remember the song(s) I had selected when I left and so it displays the beginning of the list. This is extremely irritating, especially when trying to populate a DAAP and you need to change views back and forth.
5. I can’t drag n drop a song from the Library to the destkop or a folder. iTunes can do that.
6. NO Gapless Playback!! UGGH…
7. Slow. On my Powerbook G4 867 Mhz while using the OS normally and running Songbird, it results in non-smooth playback.

8. No way to import CDs and rip them. And even if they add that in the future, will it be as full-featured as iTunes’? (e.g. automatically rip after insert and then eject CDs)
9. How the hell do I add an .m3u or a .pls playlist on this app? I don’t want to open these files with a text editor and then copy/paste their URL to the “subscription” dialog! I want Songbird to “get it” automatically when I DnD such a file on it.
10. When I press a character in the Library mode it does not automatically select the first artist or song (depending how the list is sorted by) that its name starts with that character.
11. No EQ. No ability to minimize the application to tray.
12. Its preferences are complicated, because it’s a copy/paste from Firefox’s prefs. Users who use a media player want simplicity. “Songbird should check to see if it is the default BROWSER when starting“. What the hell?
13. You might laugh on this gripe, but it’s a SIGN as to how polished an application is or it’s not: The process name is “xulrunner.exe” and not “songbird.exe”.
14. When playing a song it doesn’t change its background color in the library listing. Sure, there is a “Find Current Track” button, but it’s not as intuitive because the user has to LEARN what all buttons do instead of having visual pointers as to what is what.
15. Starts at 35 MBs of RAM and after 20 minutes it’s at 90MBs. Changing the theme makes the app leaking some memory for a while, then it stabilizes and then it uses more and more memory but at a slower pace. I am currently at 107 MBs after 25 minutes of using the app.

I am not saying that SongBird is bad, it’s at version 0.2-pre anyways. But it’s no iTunes killer just yet and therefore I don’t see a good reason to switch to it — yet. My biggest gripes with it are performance and memory consumption problems rather than missing features though.

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memson wrote on October 2nd, 2006 at 1:00 AM PST:

Eeeek! Use at your own risk!!! Apple changes the iPod master database format on a whim, and if the tool doesn’;t write it back correctly, iTunes will then refuse to recognise the iPod. This happened to me with the Windows iPod tool that sits on the iPod (forget the name of it.) Luckily I’d only added one song so I reverted to the backup the tool luckily made before I used it. Scary as hell when you have nearly 40GB of data on the iPod and no backup (my library got too big so I deleted the local files from the PC.)


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on October 2nd, 2006 at 1:22 AM PST:

>and if the tool doesn’t write it back correctly

That’s the tool’s problem. Apple and any other software company should be free to update their software if that makes it better. In fact, it’s pretty clear from the whole history of the iPod that it’s meant to be used with iTunes and nothing else. Sure, there are some apps that manage, but that doesn’t mean that they do the job better than iTunes does in terms of not screwing up the iPod.

I only use iTunes for my iPod Mini on my G4 Powerbook, but as I am mostly sitting in front of my WinXP PC, I guess I can safely say that my main media player is actually WinAMP.


John wrote on October 2nd, 2006 at 4:47 AM PST:

I agree that right now it is not time for the general public to switch to Songbird, but in a year or two, this could be a major player. They seem to have a VC funding them. Additionally, this seems to be the first (to my knowledge) multi-platform, open-source media player. And while Winamp was nice and iTunes now is big, both are closed source, and if Songbird can get some of these features you’ve mentioned, I would suspect there could be major open-source movement behind it.

Some screen shots and a review


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on October 2nd, 2006 at 9:40 AM PST:

Yeah, but normal people don’t give a flying monkey about open source. They care about free (as in beer) and they care about doing the job better than their current app does it. If your app can’t deliver then they just won’t consider it.

Firefox got 10% of the browser market share not because it’s open source but because it’s actually better than IE (and tabs proved popular). As a proof to this, check Netscape 6+ and Mozilla. They never captured more than 1% of the market share, even if they were out there for years. Why? Because they both sucked in many ways. When Firefox came along and it was actually better than IE, it captured that 10% in just 1 year.

For Songbird to capture market share away from iTunes, WMP and WinAMP it must become better than them. NOT “as good”. But BETTER.

It’s a steep uphill battle alright. But that’s the reality of the market they are in.


memson wrote on October 2nd, 2006 at 11:39 AM PST:

> That’s the tool’s problem. Apple and any other software
> company should be free to update their software if that
> makes it better.

Exactly. That is the problem with Songbird. Unless they reverse out all the changes Apple makes with every release of iTunes (new release only this morning) then they will seriously F-up your iPod’s music database and make it unreadable by iTunes. Do you know what iTunes then says? It doesn’t offer to try to rebuild thedatabase or anything vaguely sensible, it just goes “The iPod XXXX is unreadable” and then expects you will re-initialize it!! I.e loose all the data on it. If you don’t think *that* is a serious problem, then I really do despair for you.

FYI – this actually hapened to me on a point release.. 6.07 – 6.08 IIRC. I would hate to think how the database has changed to allow for gapless playback!


memson wrote on October 2nd, 2006 at 11:44 AM PST:

To paraphrase what I am saying :- if you use an iTunes alternative to WRITE to your iPod music database (i.e. add a song/movie etc), you can more or less kiss iTunes goodbye, UNLESS the developer is diligent and keeps up with iTunes changes. It’s hard to see how anyone except Anapod will keep that up, because they are one of the only one that come to mind, that actually charge money for their product.


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 1:00 AM PST:

I never said that you should not release 0.x versions! I do say though that these versions must be pretty good (e.g. smooth playback on older machines and lesser memory consumption). Consider them “beta” instead of “alpha” in terms of quality. Let the geek users to download their nighly builds or the source code, but when you have highly publicized 0.x versions, they must work pretty well and do the BASICS well. Otherwise, it will bite you back. Like I just did, even if I have no intention to harm your business.


mig wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 3:38 AM PST:

Well, sure. I’d love to do that.

Except smooth playback on older machines and lesser memory consumption are two of the things we have the least control over given that we’re simply marrying VLC (or QT) to XULRunner. Those happen the most slowly precisely because we have to work with (or around) other programming teams. And you should have seen how bad we were on both counts just 2 months ago.

But that’s only two of your fifteen, right?

To be honest, we get bit far worse by people who only look at the screenshot and say “oh, it’s just black a ripoff of iTunes” and don’t even bother to see what’s different.

If we didn’t actually spend a good percentage of our time creating anything different, they’d be absolutely right. And THAT would be what would bite us badly. We don’t mind if people don’t get it, yet.

To go back to the Mozilla/IE anaology, we’ve got tabbed browsing but no forms. Forms are a boring, solved, problem that requires plenty of work but not much imagination. And, no, such a browser wouldn’t be much good for heavy daily usage but still great to inspire people to get excited about tabs….

We don’t believe we need to win them over, this round. I’m absolutely sure the vast majority of the 10% using Firefox today were people who originally, like you said, poo-poo’d on Mozilla 1.6 and Netscape 6.

Once FF was ready for them, with distinctive features and a massive development community, they were ready to be evangelized.

We’re happy to be in the position of being able to be very patient. As long as every major rev is a big step up from the previous, we’re happy little codemonkeys. And because we know we’ll get there eventually, we feel comfortable with the nature of our roadmap.

mig


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 5:29 AM PST:

> Except smooth playback on older machines and lesser memory consumption are two of the things we have the least control over given that we’re simply marrying VLC (or QT) to XULRunner.

Mig, you are making the same mistake that many Linux distributions are made for years now (and I have called them on it).

The fact that you are using bits and pieces from other projects does NOT mean JACK. This is like buying a Sharp TV, then something breaks in it, and instead of blaming Sharp, you expect the consumer to blame the chinese maker of the burned capasitor used in that Sharp TV. This is NOT going to happen. Consumers WILL blame the FINAL product, not the bits and pieces. People will say that “Songbird is slow”, not that “Songbird’s XUL engine is slow”. Except few geeks, the 99% of your users will BLAME YOUR COMPANY for it.

The memory and speed problems are really bad and needs to be fixed (iTunes does not have these issues on my G4 for example). If the projects themselves can not fix these issues (or they don’t care to fix them), then YOUR company must assign engineers to fix the issues and then file patches with these projects. This is how open source evolves anyway. VLC and Mozilla expect such patches and new code from companies like yours. Only caring about the front-end of Songbird is not enough to create a product that can really compete at all levels with its competition.


mig wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 9:56 AM PST:

And if we were claiming we were a 1.0 release, you’d essentially be right.

Or if I had said we were ignoring the problem by blaming others, you’d also be right.

However, the sentence after that which you quote of me pretty much breaks your rant (no matter how valid it may be against others): Those happen the most slowly precisely because we have to work with (or around) other programming teams.

We _are_ involved with those issues. We _do_ have contact with (and share code between) other OSS projects. And we’re proud of it, while they’re happy with us.

It’s not a matter of blaming someone else for it not getting done, it’s a matter of blaming the natural widening of the process between two disparate teams which slows the adoption of a final, acceptable-to-all, solution. This is as much OSS as “hack it up overnight” (or, for that matter, “release early and release often”). And it’s not the “fsck it, fork it” mentality that other OSS people with bigger egos like to push.

At this point I’m a little irked that I’m still getting pushback on highly assumptive half-readings of the points I’m making, so I think we’re probably done here.

When we get to a final product, we’ll be happy to take the blame for it.

mig


x wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 12:13 PM PST:

Good points, but you seem to have missed the fact that Songbird 0.2 is a developer preview release.


mig wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 12:16 PM PST:

Hopefully it will take us fewer years to get better than iTunes than it did Mozilla to get beter than IE, no? That’s why we call it “0.2″ instead of “2.0″ right?

You also might have said something about how we treat any webpage as a playlist and can thus treat any random mp3 blog as a podcast… or how we integrate with searching lots of different internet pieces to find more free music… or how we’ll enable lots of different music stores (like eMusic, for instance) to have a fighting chance against iTMS… or any of the other ways we’re “not just another boring media player.”

Maybe those aren’t QUITE as earthshattering as tabbed browsing, but because of iTunes’ overwhelming proprietarity there’s plenty of openings through which to thrust one’s epee. And in many ways we believe it’s more valuable to spend our time on the things that make us different before spending the time to create all the things that make us the same as everyone else.

And, uh, given the number of users clamoring for iPod support (which we don’t have), I’m confused about how the comments conversation got onto that topic?

Anyhow, I assume since you emailed me directly you’d welcome my return comments. If we don’t have most of all that nailed down by the time we feel we’re good enough to be called a 1.0, feel free to point it out to us again.

Cheers,

mig


This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 12:35 PM PST:

> And in many ways we believe it’s more valuable to spend our time on the things that make us different before spending the time to create all the things that make us the same as everyone else.

I highly and categorically disagree on this. Creating a music player that doesn’t have the basics up and running first (compared to iTunes, WMP and WinAMP and maybe MediaMonkey) it will create a BAD “carma” with users who will use a random 0.x version. These users will be PREJUDICED when they finally retry the 1.0 version — IF they try it. Building a good application must be built in a way that the user expects it and adding the new features afterwards, one by one. You see, the users FIRST compare to what functionality they already have, and THEN are looking for new kind of features. This is true for all similar-functionality applications (e.g. spreedsheets, media players, browsers etc).

> given the number of users clamoring for iPod support (which we don’t have), I’m confused about how the comments conversation got onto that topic?

That’s just memson started this. He is usually off topic, ignore it. ;)

> If we don’t have most of all that nailed down by the time we feel we’re good enough to be called a 1.0, feel free to point it out to us again.

Will definitely do. ;)


mig wrote on October 3rd, 2006 at 12:57 PM PST:

Well, I understand the point you’re trying to make, but it’s a little difficult to spring full grown from the head of Zeus in this world.

Given infinite resources you’d be right, but who ever gets that?

Given that users have been demanding nightly builds and public source control (http://publicsvn.songbirdnest.com) since they heard about us, I think plenty of people besides us would disagree with you.

If your goal is to encourage and empower a development community in an open-source environment, you have to embrace the “release early and release often” mentality.

We proudly claim that we don’t expect this player to replace your current one. We’re happy with calling it 0.2 and nothing more. And we’re not going to hide under a rock forever until everything is beautiful and perfect. We want to engage the imaginations of the 10,000 Firefox developers NOW and have them all behind us before we aim for marketshare.

Otherwise, we’re just another media player in a market already supersaturated with them. And what’s the point of that?

It’s all about the gpl, the idl, the svn, and therefore the development community for us right now. Userbase is secondary precisely because we’re not yet ready for them. We’re still aiming over the horizon and encouraging the early adopters to follow along. We don’t hope to steal the iTunes demographic for quite awhile, and we’ll certainly make it known when we do.

It’s a brave new world of marketing. Hopefully, we can at least agree to disagree on that one.

mig


memson wrote on October 4th, 2006 at 9:33 AM PST:

RE: being off topic…

You touted this as a itunes replacement… itunes, to me, is a tool to utilise my ipod. As a standalone media player it sucks. If you tout something as being an itunes alike – it MUST support the ipod in my book!


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