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.