February 2006

Frogman Attacks!

Image is copyrighted http://www.jimsugar.com.

This weekend, I went down to Monterey to do my check-out dives for my SSI Level 1 scuba certification. I’m now a certified Open Water diver, which means I can dive in most recreation situations, including on my upcoming trip to Belize! Yay! The picture to the right is not me, and the gear shown is what is used by Navy Seals, not recreational divers. Our guns aren’t nearly as cool ;). Credit goes to Jim Sugar for the photo.

I got certified through Bamboo Reef. I highly recommend this diveshop. They have shops in SF, Monterey and the Northbay. They are highly competant and fun to work with. Their instructors are excellent, and they really understand how to make new and prospective divers comfortable and confident.

To be honest, I was anxious about completing my scuba certification. The classroom session were boring (despite a great teacher), and the pool work was very low risk. But to get certified, you have to get out in open water and prove your skills. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never dived in open water, never gone deeper than ten feet, and couldn’t imagine diving in the cold waters of the Pacific in the middle of February. But the open water dives were really well planned to get new divers accustomed to the unfamiliar environment in incremental steps.

Our check-out dives were in San Carlos Beach in Monterey. There were literally hundreds of scuba divers gearing up on Saturday morning at 8:00am — we looked like an army of frogmen preparing for an amphibious assault. Or something like that.

Our first ‘dive’ was just a snorkeling excursion. We got comfortable cruising around in the gear and the cool sea water. I was pleasantly surprised to find the water temperature bearable. The water was ~ 50 degrees (f), but we were rocking about 14mm of wetsuit (a shortie over a farmer john) including a hood, gloves and booties. I wasn’t cold at all.

The second dive (after the snorkel dive) was just 20 feet or so, allowing me to get comfortable with being deep enough that an unplanned ascent was a bad idea. The next dive was 30 feet or so, which got me even more comfortable with the depth and also gave me a chance to practice being neutrally bouyant. The first dive of the second day (dive 4) we went down to 40 feet.

During the first couple of dives I was so focused on being underwater and not freaking out that I didn’t pay much attention to the world around me. Occasionally, I would think ‘holy shit! look at all this crazy stuff around me!’ but I didn’t become completely aware of the scenery until the 5th and final dive. The final dive was just me and my ‘buddy’. We were free to cruise around, check out what we wanted, and didn’t need to follow a group of people or worry about where we were. Our only concern was having fun, keeping at the planned depth, and keeping track of our available oxygen.

On this last dive, we saw some loveley Monterey Bay sealife. Beautiful kelp forests, funky fish and bottom dwellers, and colorful underwater foliage. The underwater environment in Belize will be much more lively, but I look forward to returning to Monterey for more dives in the near future.

On Saturday, we also visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is one of the best aquariums in the world, host to some of the largest and most exotic wildlife.

I’m looking forward to diving in Belize!

Pretty cool new site for music exploration and discovery. I’m doing a usability test here at IODA…

Atlanta Kings

Atlanta Kings

2 Cold Empire Records

My previous post was fairly critical of Songbird, but the application is not without its merits. Songbird doesn’t do a lot of things, it doesn’t work that well right now and it lacks several features that I require of my media player. Yet, it is an alpha application — the company calls it a proof of concept — so complaining about bugs and such is rather pointless. Also pointless is trying to compare it to a mature media player like iTunes. Many of the features it lacks, Songbird has queued up for future releases.

What matters at this point is Songbird’s potential contribution to the evolving future of music. Does the idea of Songbird have promise? When viewed from this perspective, Songbird has tremendous possibilities. Perhaps I contradict myself, but maybe the future of digital media does need another media player. Songbird, at its most basic, is a powerful, extensible, mostly open source media player. It seems to be fairly well designed, which means extending it and writing plug-ins should be straight forward. This is a very good thing.

By virtue of it’s design and open source approach, it is the first media player untethered to a particular monetary incentive — which means one can eventually use this player to access any music distribution service, any portable device (hopefully), and any new avenue of music distribution that might arise in the new music industry. This application doesn’t need to placate the major music labels, as iTunes does, by applying some awkward restrictions on how users listen to their music. It also doesn’t need to shove ads in users’ faces, as RealPlayer and other players do. From what I can tell, Songbird’s goal is to be agnostic towards how users acquire their music. Instead, it offers a framework for allowing users to choose their distribution network — whether that’s MP3 blogs, traditional ‘network’ music services, or burning their CDs.

I still question the value of having ones’ media player all balled up with their web browser and RSS reader, but I also see point: Many people use the web (blogs included) for a distinct function (not their only use, but a distinct one), which is to explore, discover and acquire their music. Songbird definitely understands this, although their current development strategy is missing some of the major networks that music gets distributed upon, most prominently P2P networks. Although P2P networks are generally vilified for enabling copyright infringement, they are also used as a primary distribution channel for indy bands and people who just want their music out there. The absence of P2P access as a ‘Network Service’ in this application is probably an attempt to sidestep the legal problems visited upon P2P companies; and perhaps a future version can incorporate legitimate P2P networks (whatever those might be).

At the end of the day, the idea of Songbird is indeed promising. I’m looking forward to a version that is fully functional and bug-free, and gives me all of the components and plug-ins I require in a media player. Until then, I’ll stick with iTunes and my own little set of tools that connect me with the music I love.

The bird has flown the coop today. Or the egg has hatched. Or something. A new media player, called Songbird, released it’s ‘preview’ beta product today (the main site is overloaded, so you can download from the mirror). I’ve been watching these guys for several months, and I’m very pleased to finally have an opportunity to play with the application rather than just looking at screen shots and watching their logo change from a healthy, happy bird to a fat, gaseous, bloated one that probably has CVD.

Songbird purports to be an open source alternative to other media players, namely iTunes, that provides access to a variety of music distribution services (not just the iTunes Music Store ITMS), as well as several ‘value added’ components like a built in web-browser. In an interview with Xeni Jardin on BoingBoing today, Songbird co-founder Rob Lord emphasized the cumbersome nature of Apple’s DRM that they embed in files purchased from ITMS. Songbird is meant to counterbalance that by giving users more options on where they purchase their music.

On first inspection, I have to say I’m quite disappointed. For starters, the application is very slow to load on my Windows machine (I’d load to the mac, but oops — Windows only!). Secondly, the preview version is not ready for prime time. It’s not even ready for local cable. It’s buggy. Getting a song to play is laborious. Seems like when one pushes any one of the three play buttons, the music should, well, play. I had to switch to the ‘alternative skin’ to make the bloody files play.

Aside from these nit-picking details, there have been several complaints about this application, which I largely agree with but won’t reiterate here. Suffice to say that I think redesigning the logo to appear bloated was both humorous and accurate. It’s not that I necessarily object to a feature-rich media player (in fact, I helped to build one!), but I don’t think the Songbird features add any value for the user.

As far as I can tell, all Songbird really offers is a pretty cool interface (think iTunes in black or red — you choose!) with a built in web browser. The problem is that I don’t need or want a web browser in my media player. I don’t need the bookmarks there (that I can’t even add to), I don’t need the ‘Network Services’ (or, bookmarks by another name). I do like that when I browse to a site that has MP3s (say Ourmedia.org), it gives me a list of available media files that I can download. But my RSS reader already does that. And, I have tools that collect legal music files from the MP3 blogs to which I subscribe.

My web browser, Firefox, with which Songbird shares a platform, is good at what it is designed to do. My RSS reader is good at what it is designed to do. Media players should, at the very least, be good at what they do. I love the idea of a quality open source media player, but Songbird lacks several characteristics that make it one. It’s platform dependent, buggy (so far), and lacking several features I like in iTunes, like ratings, cover art, smart playlists, and access to my iPod.

I guess my big disappointment with Songbird is that it doesn’t solve any problems that arise with the revolution in digital music publication. At least now it doesn’t. When I was working on Orpheus, our goal was to solve, or at least study, the search and discovery problem in music. I felt then, and I feel now, that a big challenge in this music revolution was that it is hard to find good music — to find that golden needle in the vast haystack of available music. I wanted to know more about my music, and I wanted to find more and better music. Our user studies told us that other people found this desirable as well.

In Orpheus, as one listens to a song, she sees the album art, the label, the artist discography, several articles about the artist or album (or links to articles). And one could browse a visualization about how that artist related to other artists, labels and producers. Orpheus was an information rich media player. What we lacked was a way to sample music we discovered in the visualizations, we lacked explicit recommendations, and we lacked an easy means to purchase music we listened to and liked. But these features are easily incorporated into an external plug-in to existing media player. In fact, *all* of the Orpheus features are easily integrated as a plug-in to an existing media player. What we learned was that existing media players are fine — no need to re-invent the wheel. It could be the Songbird can become the preferred media player, but they have a long way to go. If writing plug-ins to existing players is the way to provide an information rich experience to users, then a stable Songbird might be perfect, since it is designed to be easily extensible.

But the music revolution doesn’t really need more media players, even an open source player with an integrated web browser. What is really needed is a better way to find and explore music, and a way to make a rich set of information about that music available to the user. So, in a sentence, I suppose my disappointment with Songbird is that it provides no improved means of searching or discovering music, no information about the artist I’m listening to (even iTunes has cover art), and no user experience. It’s just a media player with some additional features.

I agree with Rob Lord that iTunes’ DRM is a drag. But this speaks to a larger problem in the nascent digital music industry, not a flaw in iTunes. The problem with iTunes DRM is the DRM itself, not the media player. The problem is the fact that the only way some companies can see fit to sell their music in a digital format is to strap it down with DRM. I think DRM is a losing proposition in the long run, although millions of people don’t seem to mind buying music from iTunes. Songbird doesn’t address the ITMS DRM problem at all, it just sidesteps it, and with several problematic consequences. And the problem — iTunes’ AAC format and embedded DRM, is hardly worth the effort of building a new player.

Rob Lord stated that his reason for building Songbird was because “People should have more choice about music and video formats, and where they get their music.”

Well, people already do, and I’m not convinced that embedding a few more links to buy music from alternate sources is going to help anyone, and it is hardly cause for a new media player. The fact that there has been so much attention on Songbird, and the fact that it even exists, suggests three things to me: First, people are really interested in the digital music revolution, and want tools to help them participate in it. Secondly, (some) people are frustrated with having their music DRM strapped, and want alternatives. Finally, the tool chest of the music explorer is incomplete, and more tools need to be created to assist us in the search and discover aspect of music. Pandora and Last.FM are doing a fine job in this last area but more needs to be done.

Sadly, I have to say that Songbird doesn’t provide any of the tools or features that I would find useful at the moment. I think they are barking up the wrong tree, or singing the wrong tune, or whatever metaphor might be appropriate.