A Firefox for music?

The Pioneers of the Inevitable are taking aim at iTunes, with open-source music software called Songbird.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
If digital-music veteran Rob Lord wanted to court controversy with his new open-source start-up, he probably couldn't have done much better than to compare Apple Computer's iTunes software to Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser.

Lord's new five-person company, the ambitiously named Pioneers of the Inevitable, is building a piece of digital-music software called "Songbird," based on much of the same underlying open-source technology as the Firefox Web browser.

With their first technical preview expected early next year, the programmers want to create music-playing software that will work naturally with the growing number of music sites and services on the Web, instead of being focused on songs on a computer's hard drive. That's where iTunes, which plugs only into Apple's own music store, falls short, Lord argues.

Apple's iTunes is "like Internet Explorer, if Internet Explorer could only browse Microsoft.com," Lord said. "We love Apple, and appreciate and thank them for setting the bar in terms of user experience. But it's inevitable that the market architecture changes as it matures."

An Apple representative declined to comment.

It is undeniable that music software and services are moving increasingly off the hard drive and onto the Web. But if Songbird is to be the "Firefox of MP3" when it's done, it has a long way to go.

Indeed, analysts question whether a world awash in music-playing software from Apple, Microsoft, RealNetworks, Yahoo, Sony and others really needs another digital jukebox.

Among those giants, Microsoft's Media Player accounts for 45 percent of all PC music playing, Apple's iTunes captures 17 percent, and the rest fall off sharply from there, according to U.S. statistics from the NPD Group.

But even with those odds, Lord has enough of a pedigree to make the industry stop and take notice. A co-founder of the Internet Underground Music Archive, an online music site predating the MP3 boom, as well as one of the first employees at Winamp creator Nullsoft, he was most recently a product manager for the launch of Yahoo's music software and subscription service, after his last start-up, Mediacode, was purchased by the portal.

Songbird could have a built-in audience of open-source fans to give it a good start. And don't forget, just a few years ago, who would have counted on the success of the Firefox browser? Since its first full-version release a year ago, the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox has defied skeptics and managed to grab close to 8 percent or 9 percent of the browser market, although estimates vary.

And programmers working with the Mozilla Foundation say the Songbird project has their attention.

"We're excited to see an ecosystem of companies building technology around Mozilla," said Scott MacGregor, technical lead for the Thunderbird project, an open-source e-mail reader. "It's a healthy sign for Mozilla and open source in general."

Under the microscope
Even before the software has been released, Songbird has stirred up a hornet's nest of online critics and boosters on outside blogs and even on the company's own Web site.

Screenshots posted on the company's Web site show a software application clearly modeled closely after iTunes' browsing style. The parallels drew instant ridicule from Apple loyalists, who pointed out that Apple had in fact patented software with three "panes" for browsing through a media collection.

Until the software is released even in a preview stage, it's hard to tell whether that will indeed be a problem. But Lord says that's missing the point.

iTunes does have a good basic interface for browsing a music collection, but Songbird isn't tied to any one look, he said. It's built on technology that allows developers to change the look of the application with the same simple tools they use to write a Web page, and so will be extremely malleable.

That said, the five Pioneers of the Inevitable are a practical bunch, and will change their basic interface if it looks like there is any legal risk, he added.

Songbird's underlying programming technology is called XML User Interface Language, or XUL. Along with letting people create their own look for the software, this will allow music services or developers to write their own plug-ins, letting them add features or tap directly into their own digital-download stores.

That might mean that a listener could create a playlist that draws from his or her own hard drive, a Web-based subscription service like RealNetworks' Rhapsody, and an online music storage locker such as MP3Tunes, for example. The open-source foundation will let the software be easily ported to PC, Macintosh and Linux-based computers.

Lord cautioned that little of this has actually been built yet. The version that will be released early next year will largely be a demonstration of how a media player can be built on top of the Mozilla technology. Most of the advanced features people now expect from modern music software will be added over the course of further development, he said.

"What we've built is a user preview," Lord said. "This is meant to inspire and show the road map--and a glimpse of where we are on that road map."

How does this all make money? It's not yet clear. The company's business model is a work in progress too, Lord said.

One possibility is selling the technology to companies that want to create their own music store, but don't want to build their own software to do it. One analyst pointed to Procter & Gamble's recent release of a music service as an example.

"I can imagine Songbird as a Web interface for a brand like that," said GartnerG2 analyst Mike McGuire. "There would be interesting value there."