Firefox 2.0 is causing quite a stir these days. The browser has been downloaded more than two million times since it was officially released last week - and the debate is heating up about whether the upgrade is worth it or not.

In the shadows of this ruckus another Mozilla offspirng hatched a few days earlier: Songbird version 0.2, called the developer preview, was released a good week before Firefox 2.0. Songbird promises to be an extraordinary media player. Open Source, XUL-based, easily extendable, and with some unique networking features.

Some of these features are already included in the 0.2 release. But of course it's an early preview, mostly targeting developers, so one shouldn't expect CD burning capabilities or anything else too fancy. Early Firefox adopters might remember Phoenix. It's like that, but with music. And a better mascot.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit down with Songbird founder Rob Lord and chat with him about his plans for the Open Source player. He told me about his vision of the media web, Songbird's business model and the similarities and differences between Songbird and Firefox.
rob lord

P2P Blog: It seems that right now many applications are moving to the web. You have online office suites, online calendars - why did you decide to build an application that is residing on the user's hard disk?

Rob Lord: You can certainly put a player inside a page, and there has been a lot of success recently doing that. But we think that any media file is most useful to users when it's in their context of their libraries.

Your libraries, your playlists, your CD ripper burner, your DVD ripper burner, your LAN sharing devices, your portable devices, your mobile handsets. And social networking systems like Last.fm, where everything you play is recorded, so that your friends can later see and aggregate what you have been listening to. You have friends out there that are both into Mister T and Cat Power? That's an important determinative - and something you should know.

So by bringing that media out of its web page and into users realm not only provides tremendous more utility just in terms of media, but also allows that users to become much more involved in the media web.

Tell me a little more about this idea of the media web. What services is it comprised of, and how does Songbird interact with them?

You can think of it as services that belong under headers of a la carte stores like the iTunes music store. Subscription services like Rhapsody and the Yahoo Music Unlimited service. Radio services, video services, podcasting services. Social networking services. Legal P2P services. And even other ones that don't really have even that much definition yet. We imagine that every blog could be a repository of not just ones library and playlist, but also be a store for someone else.

With Songbird you have static playlists, smart playlists that are based on criteria. You have dynamic playlists. And you have playlists that are defined by some end point on the web. For instance there is a service called Podbop, where you type in your city and it provides you with a list of all the bands that are playing in your town - and also MP3 files. A playlist. So you can listen to those and determine where you want to go. So that's an interesting new kind of networked service.

So we imagine a media web, a space as diverse as the web itself. And a media player that faithfully and agnosticly renders each one the same way as a web browser faithfully faithfully and agnosticly allows a user to select what they explore.

Why do you think are other media player makers so slow with adopting such ideas? Take a company like Microsoft for example, that somehow forgot to incorporate RSS and podcasting capabilities into Windows Media Player 11 ...

Media players have been stagnant for the last six or seven years. Winamp really defined the last generation, and we hope that Songbird defines the next generation. I think the cause of this stagnation is the fact that the media player builders have been building their media players for one purpose, which is to have a media player that renders their service. iTunes for example renders the iTunes music store. You can't with any other media player access the iTunes music store. Nor can you access any other services than the iTunes music store within itunes. It's a silo model. It's a walled garden.

We think it's unlikely that those companies will open their media players to the web because of that model. We represent an alternative - the web model for digital media. We call the company Pioneers of the Inevitable. First because it's funny, and second because we really believe that the web model for digital media, with methods, formats and protocols that support this media web that underly it is an inevitability just as much as the web has been.

songbird

So what can people expect from the new version 0.2, and what's your timeline for Songbird?

We are calling this our developer's preview. It provides an opportunity for developers to take a really good look and determine whether it's time for them to engage this. Whether we have become the Firefox of media players yet. That's really our goal in this. We provide the tools for developers to really begin to get involved. Like Bugzilla for bugs, Traq and Oxygen for documentation. Subversion for code management. The tools that developers expect to find. This is really where we expect to engage with the development community.

We're looking at a 0.3 which has more user feature by the end of the year and 1.0 maybe first quarter of 2007. The novel features that users can explore right now are these network features. One is the dynamic playlist, where any web page can be effectively turned into an RSS feed. Any web page can be subscribed to, and all the media contained within that web page is automatically downloaded into a users library on a scheduled basis. You can choose daily, hourly - whatever you like.

But we think this notion of subscribing to an RSS feed - that's a difficult concept for people. A feed is something that you give to cows. RSS stands for really simple syndication, and nobody is really sure what that means. The concept we want to promote is playing the web. You can play music and you can play the web. Any web page is effectively a playlist and a source of media. In fact the whole web is just a library of music and you should be able to experience it that way. We think the future is playing the web, not necessarily subscribing to an RSS feed of the web.

What exactly is the connection between Songbird and Firefox?

Songbird is built on top of the Mozilla stack, just like Firefox. In fact you can think of Songbird as Firefox with it's interface removed, some new internals put in - a media library, a device API, some core media player features - and then the interface put back on.

One of the aspects that is really great about the Mozilla Platform is that the interface is a web page. So it can be updated as efficiently as a web page can. It's just markup, CSS and javascript. The same things that are isnide a web page. So anyone who has a Myspace account could make new feathers for Songbird. We call feathers hat Winamp called skins.

It also means that a little more sophisticated developers can build extensions for their own features. Firefox has 1500 extensions. Most of those extensions with a little bit of work would work inside Songbird. New extensions that are specific to media can be build just as quickly, just as effectively. And all of those extensions of course are cross platform.

songbird

One big difference to Firefox is that Firefox is at heart a nonprofit project, but you are a for-profit company. So what's the business model behind Songbird?

There is two ways we look at it. One is: Imagine - and this is not announcing any kind of deal - but imagine a mobile carrier would be interested in having some software that would sync with their portable device. Or a large consumer electrronics company would like to use the software. The idea really is that any service might work with any device through Songbird, which adds a lot of utility to any existing service or any existing device. It opens up quite a bit of value. So yes, certainly working with the industry. Consumer electronics, media, hardware, software, and even pure internet players like Yahoo and Google. I think there is a lot of value for all those industries for Songbird.

There is another way we are looking at this too. We believe lightning doesn't strike twice. Firefox was downloaded more than 200 million times since it's 1.0 has been released. It would be insane for us to think that we could be so wildly succesful. That said, we think Songbird is more of a disruptive innovation in its category than firefox was in its category. So we are hopeful that there will be quite a few downloads. In that there is the opportunity to bundle in services. For instance as Google does with Firefox, that are actually really helpful to the end user and also generate revenue for the Mozilla Foundation. We think that a better Songbird is actually a more profitable Songbird.

One last question: You have this really cute bird as a mascot, but he seems to have some digestive problems. What is he eating?

He doesn't talk. We don't know.

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