Songbird: Open-source iTunes killer?

I'm not sure if anyone or anything can kill anything music-related from Apple right now--or even give it a serious flesh wound. But Songbird is a new open-source music player, built on some of the same code as Firefox, that aims to change how people think about online music. This Windows-based program is rather iTunes-like in look, feel, and functionality. (Actually, it's incredibly iTunes-like: Sometimes, imitation is the sincerest form of open-source development.) But rather than hooking into one online music source--Apple's iTunes Music Store--Songbird aims to talk to lots and lots of them.

Boing Boing has a good interview with Rob Lord, the Songbird project's leader, which explains the thinking behind the app. Lord compares current commercial music players/services like iTunes to old pre-Web online services like AOL and Prodigy, and in many ways that's exactly right--what we really need are players that can play anything and music that can be played anywhere.

But Songbird would seem to face an imposing obstacle in the fact that the bulk of legally-available online music is so locked up in proprietary interfaces and restrictive DRM that this player can't talk to. So Songbird is less like Firefox and more like Firefox's great-great-granddaddy, Mosaic--which hit the scene when most of the world's online content was still anything but open.

Of course, if you have a collection of MP3s, you have music that's neither proprietary nor locked up, and Songbird gives you tools to manage it and listen to it. I'm going to do just that over the next few days and see how things go.

The preview version of Songbird is off to a bit of a rocky start--the download site has been overloaded today, and the program seems decidedly beta-ish (read: buggy). If it's got documentation, I can't get it to work. (Which is one reason why there are things about the program I don't know yet--like what handheld devices it supports.)

At the moment, it also has a high geek factor, more reminiscent of early Mozilla builds than the more consumery Firefox. Why it prominently links through to a FreeBSD directory of MP3s somewhere and a blog in French, I'm not entirely sure. But like I say, this is a preview, not a finished product; it'll be interesting to see how it develops...and whether it catches on.

If you give Songbird a whirl, come back and let us know what you think...

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Harry McCracken

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