"I can't live without my radio," LL Cool J once declaimed. Me, I can't live without my music library: there isn't a day that goes by when I don't have Miles Davis or Brian Eno (or, when I'm feeling more ruminative, Merzbow) on the speakers. To that end I tried out Songbird, a Mozilla-derived open-source music player and web-sharing platform. In time it could be to WMP and even Winamp what Firefox is to IE -- but, again, in time.
Since Songbird is still in the very early stages (I tried out the 0.3 release on Windows), I didn't expect anything as polished as iTunes. But even this early on, it's a slick-looking program and it works well enough in the most basic ways to make me consider using it at least provisionally. The visual design of the program (version 0.4 shown here) does seem loosely inspired by iTunes, although the columnar design also owes something to the open-source player Rhythmbox as well.
When you install the 0.3 version, you can elect to add a few plugins out of the box, such as support for QuickTime and WMP formats. Point the program at an existing music directory and it'll slurp up the contents into its library (it doesn't move anything around, though), and will continue to do so in the background as you play music and create playlists. The program's Unicode-aware, so songs that have UTF-8 metadata showed up properly. It also did a good job of handling a large library -- I've got something like 15,000+ tracks in my music collection -- although the interface occasionally froze while updating the library view.
The idea seems to be to create something that has the same extensible, developer-friendly framework as Firefox, so that people can write plugins to add all different kinds of functionality to the core program. I also suspect this gives them a playground in which to test out different functions that could be added to the core of the program in due time: one of the plugins for the 0.4 build, a Now Playing list, is a standard feature in a lot of other music players, and is admittedly something their own users were asking for.
A big part of what Songbird is about is something that, say, the Zune seemed to be aiming for but fell far short of (and created in a totally closed-ended fashion): a way to make digital music into a social phenomenon. Songbird comes pre-loaded with bookmarks to a number of music aggregation sites, like The Hype Machine, and can speak to any number of Web page music APIs. This makes it possible to build a Web page that a Songbird user can navigate to, plug into, and play from.
There's obviously a lot of features that need to be added, either natively or through the plug-in architecture, before Songbird can really be a 1.0 product. Music-ripping also isn't included natively, although that could conceivably be added through a plug-in. Some of the most crucial stuff already is there, though -- like the ability to sync with an iPod, or a music player that's registered as a USB storage device. Other things are just UI polish, like the library-view-freeze thing I mentioned before. But I plan on making this a regular download from now on, just to see how it evolves.