RealTime IT News

Mozilla + iTunes + Rhapsody = Songbird

As Apple continues to extend its hegemony over the music industry, a new initiative from an MP3 veteran could provide an alternative to the vendor lock between iTunes and the iPod player.

Songbird is a new music player from a San Francisco startup with the unique name Pioneers of the Inevitable.

Its founder and CEO, Rob Lord, was one of the developers on WinAMP, one of the first MP3 players to hit the Internet in the late 1990s. AOL would eventually acquire Nullsoft, the developer of WinAMP in 1999, making it a core part of AOL Music.

Now Lord and his crew of 14 are taking on Apple  and every other establishment music vendor, and they are doing it via the open source path. Songbird is still in its very early stages of development but usable.

Songbird is built on XUL , which stands for Extensible User-Interface Language. It deploys a series of XML tags that allow different operating platforms to exchange data that describe a program's user interface, which can help cross-platform applications work together.

XULRunner is a packaging of the core Mozilla codebase including XUL, HTML, XML, CSS, Javascript and the rest of the Gecko rendering engine. (Gecko is the rendering engine upon which both the Netscape and Firefox browsers are built.). In other words, XULRunner is the core runtime, including a set of libraries and APIs that provide basic functionality required by Web applications, but which does not include any actual user interface or "application" layer.

Browsing capabilities aside, Songbird's emphasis is on audio playback, both with locally stored files and music streamed over the Internet.

Because the player uses Gecko, it will support many of the skins and plug-ins of Firefox. Among the plug-ins is one for the iPod. This extension, according to the description, will mount your iPod in Songbird, allowing you to play songs from your iPod library and playlists. This extension also allows you to copy songs to your iPod or synchronize your iPod from your Songbird library.

Lord calls Songbird a "mashup between a Web browser and a media player, creating a new class of app I call a Web player." Songbird will support all open file formats but it will also support codecs  and Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Windows media, VLC and Quicktime. That means it can play the iTunes AAC file format, XviD, Ogg Vorbis and WMV files.

Needless to say he isn't keen on the vendor lock seen today in the digital music space. "If today's Web browsers were built like today's media players, Internet Explorer would only surf to Microsoft.com and only run on the Xbox," he told internetnews.com. "So we're looking to be more like a Web browser."

Songbird is file format and platform agnostic, so it will render digital media network services on any digital media device. For now, Lord said Songbird's biggest challenge is working with the Mozilla stack, which was built for making a Web browser and isn't well supported.

"Unlike working with Microsoft developer tools, there's not a lot of developer support on the Mozilla platform," he said. "You hang out in an IRC  channel and ask questions when you're not sure how to do something." On the plus side, because it's built on Gecko, Pioneers is able to use one code tree to build Songbird for three platforms, Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

The company is preparing its 0.3 release for the third quarter, building out its features and improving stability, including the addition of JavaScript objects for sharing content or populating a new playlist automatically.

Analyst Rob Enderle of The Enderle Group noted Songbird is "the exact opposite of iTunes. If I were Real Networks, this is the kind of thing I'd be worried about. Given the fact is supports the Mac and a substantial amount of freedom that iTunes does not, it could be a popular. It's clearly an impressive effort," he said.

Enderle said there isn't a huge desire on the part of the public to get away from iTunes, although it would probably go over well with the crowd that took such a shine to Firefox over Internet Explorer in the first place, plus the Linux community, which is shut out for now.

Pioneers of the Inevitable may be facing a battle on the scale of Firefox vs. Internet Explorer should it choose to take on iTunes. A recent report by market research firm NPD Group put iTunes as the number three music retailer, with 9.8 percent of the total music market.

Only Wal-Mart (15.8 percent) and Best Buy (13.8 percent) had bigger chunks of the pie. But iTunes sells more music than Amazon, Target, Borders, Circuit City, Virgin Megastores and other retailers.

Physical CD sales are still the overwhelming choice of the public, accounting for 86.2 percent of all sales, but digital music continues to grow, accounting for the remaining 13.8 percent of total sales.