Songbird – A Challenger Appears! Can Songbird take iTunes down to size?

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By: Emilia Azure <3

iTunes is one of — if not the! — most popular music-playing software out there. It’s been able to keep a tight rein on its consumer base because of its integrated music store and its compatibility with the iPod series. However, it’s bloated and slow; it’s uncomfortably crammed into various places on OS X Lion and Snow Leopard, it’s badly ported into Windows, and it’s non-existent in Linux OSes. For the sake of giving the user some more power, more powerful media players have to step into the ring.

This article is here to size Songbird up, to see if it’s a contender.

Welcome screen from Songbird's beta release a few years back

The most important part of Songbird has to be its audio-playing skills. Without that, no matter how wonderful the app is otherwise, it won’t be doing its job. It can play MP3, WMA, AAC, FLAC, and more codecs easily. For those who care heavily about the structure of their music libraries, Songbird makes it easy to alter a song’s metadata and plugins exist that can do a batch correction of metadata information or that can organize music solely based on an existing folder structure.

It can also reach into the power of the internet to add to the listening experience. It can easily hook into a Last.fm account and stream music from there — even the up thumbs up and down buttons are present — and youtube videos and lyrics are only a keypress away. Songbird’s able to do it because it’s really a mix between a standard music player and a web browser. It’s built with the same framework as the Firefox browser and many of its user interfaces borrow from it heavily. This mutual base is what lets Songbird take advantage of the amazing series of tubes that is the internet and what lets it become so customizable: plugins and custom skins (here called feathers) are constantly coming into being.

Songbird's current logo: A small black bird happily listening to headphones.

Songbird's cute mascot

However, there’s a problem behind this glossy, impressive exterior. It’s something akin to the criticism that’s always hurled at the popular, feature-rich text editor Emacs: “It has everything a proper operating system needs except for a decent text editor.” Songbird easily runs into that same problem. After all, we turn to Songbird to be a music player — a highly customizable one, yes, but still a music player. Finding duplicates, fixing metadata, and fetching lyrics are all nice extras to have, but after a while it gets to be too much. Is a plug-in really needed to let you tweet from inside your music player?

Caveat emptor, I suppose.

However, that rationalization doesn’t work when confronted with this problem: Songbird’s official Linux support died in 2010. While there are “unofficial” versions of it being released still, the symbolic break here is powerful. Open source software thrives on community and the decision to exclude the most vocal (and arguably productive) section of its community was a mistake. The average user right now probably doesn’t care and they’re completely justified in feeling so. It’s a bad omen for what could come in the future, though — a move to Songbird might have to be redone as a trip to Banshee or foobar in a few months.

I honestly want to give Songbird a chance. The endless possibilities for customization still enthrall me; I’m a kid with a fancy contraption in front of her and free reign to explore it. I’m not sure if it’s going to stay my preferred music client, though. There are tons of alternatives: foobar, Banshee, Amarok, Quod Libet… Songbird is not a sure thing right now and more experimenting and voyaging is definitely needed.

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