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Songbird Flutters a Sweet Tune but Can it Compete with Apple?

Earlier this week, Songbird, the open-source customizable music player powered by Mozilla technology made it’s official 1.0 launch. Set out to be an open design with a variety of integrated services, a vast array of add-ons and ever expanding developer community, is it possible that Songbird could ever pose a threat to Apple’s iTunes?

After two years of development Songbird is finally at an optimal stage of performance and stability, and while they claim there is plenty left to do, they appear to be enthusiastic with the currently integrated features. Built on Mozilla’s Gecko engine, the same that powers Firefox, the UI allows for a familiar tabbed browsing experience. Upon closer examination, you will discover that Songbird has a lot to offer in the way of customization and extendability, making it the media player that many have been in search of. The Songbird team has revealed that as of late 160k users/month have expressed an interest in an alternative player.

First Impressions:

In the past, users had noted Songbird to be a sluggish and buggy application, prone to unexpected crashes. Negative first impressions can pose a hindrance on future usage, so if you are one of the folks that had a bad first experience, I would recommend that you take another crack at it. My initial examination of 1.0 showed the player to be very responsive and stable. Directly following instillation you are met with a prompt to port over your iTunes library, which was as smooth a process as one could conceivably imagine, even importing DRM-protected media with the accompanying metadata. Initial operation of the browser functions as one would expect coming from Mozilla, with little in the way of default interface changes. A casual user may find it to be an awkward transition to browse with an application that looks like the offspring of Firefox and iTunes, yet the initial confusion will wear off after a few minutes.

The Add-ons

Songbird comes with a few add-ons that are already integrated upon installation. The first of which, mashTape, allows you to easily access a wealth of information, including artist bios and info, links, news, discographies, flickr photos and YouTube videos. Other default add-ons that come equipped with Songbird include Scrobbling, SHOUTcast Radio and Concert Tickets. From here you can sync tracks to’s services, stream music over the web and find local upcoming shows of your favorite bands. If these add-ons aren’t enough to tickle your fancy (when is it ever enough?) then you can choose from a list of over 300 additional add-ons that are currently available across categories such as Appearance, Playback & Management, Content & Discovery, Web Browser and Developer Tools.

The first add-on I chose to install was the Songbird recommended LyricMaster, which displays lyrics from the currently playing song, leading to the inevitable spontaneous karaoke outburst. Surprisingly, LyricMaster was able to display lyrics from every song that I tried out, even a few foreign gems. Ok, so now that my personal dance party is coming to an end, I decided to go ahead and customize the appearance by downloading a darker theme, called YABS, that is a bit easier on my ever degrading eyesight. I could probably go on installing add-ons for hours, but in the interest of saving time, let’s proceed.

Areas in Need of Improvement:

A first impression would not be complete without making mention of Songbird’s weaknesses. The Songbird team openly states that, “there are several features we’re proud of, but we’ll be the first to admit that others need ironing out, are experimental, or are just plain missing. There’s still a lot to do.” Songbird currently lacks CD Ripping, Watch Folders (Automatically importing media from defined folders), and extended Video support, which are all major features one could make use of. Fortunately, all of these are on their current development roadmap and should be made available in the near future. One other area that can be improved is that Songbird is not yet capable of automatically installing album artwork, leaving up to their user to manually add it in.

One question that skeptics may ask is, “does it have iPod support?” and the answer is a problematic, yes and no. There is an iPod Device Support add-on that allows you to play and sync your iPod music with your Songbird library using this Songbird extension, yet does not yet support iPhone and iPod touch devices. Such shortcomings may be enough to off-put the average user, yet hardcore audiophiles may find the ever expanding application to be right up their alley.

Should Apple Be Concerned?

If one were to dwell only on the features that are currently absent from Songbird 1.0, than it would appear as though Apple would have nothing to worry about. But will those folks be saying the same thing a year from now, as updated versions and future add-ons become available? It is difficult to make the assumption that nothing will ever be able to compete with the iTunes in their respective market.

If Songbird continues to add customizable aspects giving users complete control over the application, then iTunes may have a serious battle on its hands. Similar to how Firefox became the open alternative web browser, so to will Songbird be the open alternative media player. While the current iTunes has matured into a cultured piece of software, it’s only fair to allow Songbird the same amount of time to properly develop future versions.

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