rtyler

Songbird, a visual review

A few nights ago, not knowing what I should hack on and thinking about Andreia's post about her progress embedding XulRunner in a Mono-based Windows Forms application, I remembered something I had heard about vaguely a few months ago (really vaguely, like remembering to turn the oven off after you've already been on vacation for two weeks). Songbird, a Gecko-based media player being touted as the possible Firefox for media applications, and as their site says:


Songbird™ is a desktop Web player, a digital jukebox and Web browser mash-up. Like Winamp, it supports extensions and skins feathers. Like Firefox®, it is built from Mozilla®, cross-platform and open source.


Feeling curious, bored, and a bit sadistic, I decided I'd give it a whirl on my MacBook Pro. How bad could it be? Besides the fact that they call themselves a "desktop web player" which means god-knows-what, it can't be that terrible, they have an über leet black interface!

It was bad. Very bad.

Songbird is at version 0.2.5 and is marked as a developer preview, and as a developer, I didn't like the preview. I would however, recommend trying out Songbird with a grain of salt in that they have to battle with Mozilla's notoriously bad source code and maintaining cross-platform capability across numerous architectues for Linux, Windows and Mac OS X. Regardless, on to the pictures!

Starting up Songbird for the first time
Songbird, EULA!?

Any application that first presents the user with useless legalese is not off to a good start, especially when Songbird has such an uphill battle to fight against WinAmp and iTunes. I'll subtract a point for the annoyance, but it's a recoverable error for 0.2.5


Agreeing to use the software
Songbird, GPL == EULA?

YIKES! One cannot stress this enough with any software that embeds the GPL, or any other software source license with their released distributions (looking at you OpenOffice.org). Are you out of your damn minds?! Minus five points!

Phew, almost lost it there, now that I've agreed to promise not to violate the GPL when I play songs or "play the web on my desktop" as I inferred from their website, I can continue to get to actually use the software.

Setting up Songbird
Songbird, first run

Before you get to playing music, you definitely need to go through a first run setup, just like iTunes does, to set some initial presets. Nothing out of the ordinary here, but I do appreciate the checkbox to turn off reporting my usage or setup information, +1.

Downloadin' ur extenzionz!
Songbird, Fetching extensions

I was a bit taken aback by the fact that I needed to download the extensions that one would assume were already bundled, since they're selected in the installation process. Given the immaturity of the project, these extensions could have drastically changed since they bundled and pushed the release, so no point change, I can understand their decision even if I don't agree with it.

The images get a bit bigger from here on out, so they'll be linked and pop up in an inline image window thanks to a derivative of Lightbox.

Importing iTunes Library
Fortunately they prefill the textbox with the full path to my iTunes library, otherwise I might not be able to find it myself, assuming I'm a normal user. No points awarded for common sense :)

Importing iTunes Library, seriously
I'm a bit confused, I thought I just imported my iTunes library? Unfortunately Songbird can grab the meta-data properly from my iTunes.xml library file, but can't seem to find the actual music! Therefore, the user needs to select their actual iTunes music folder, or whereever they actually store their music! Adding another step between me, and hearing my commemorative "10th Anniversary of The Wiggles" tracks is definitely not a good thing, -1.

Now to my music!
Not so fast cowboy, first, Songbird needs to tell me that some of my tracks failed to import. Does it mean my AAC music? Or my iTunes Store purchases? Wait, or does it mean my OGG music? Oh well, something failed somewhere. Now that that's done, you don't go straight to your music you just spent about 3 clicks too many importing, you go to some silly media-homepage in Songbird's internal browser. I don't care! I know what Songbird is! I just downloaded and installed it! All I wanted was to hear some rocking good kid's tunes from "The Wiggles." Minus three points for standing between me and my music.

Menus galore!
No really, menus!
Menus and sidebars!
The menus for most of Songbird are reasonably well done, but they have some fetish for including images and non-standard things in their interface. For example, at least on Mac OS X, I can't think of a single application outside of Safari's "History" menu that includes little icons in their menus to let you know exactly what you're reading really is what it says it is. Their side navigation bar also includes, just like Firefox does, bookmarks for crap I don't care about. They're trying to follow some conventions, but not conventions for my platform, a measely one point awarded.

Browsing the library
Fortunately, they weren't able to convolute the most basic function of the media player, playing and browsing through media. +2.

Mini-birds
More mini-birds
One thing they definitely have over iTunes, is their minimized mode is much more compact, and definitely sleeker, +2.

Browsing mp3 blogs
Browsing "custom" mp3 blogs
Essentially, a podcast, I think? Not sure if they're trying to coin the phrase "mp3 blog", but giving me a more direct access to sites that offer feeds is certainly nice, their hybrid browser + playlist interface is pretty interesting as well, +1 for trying something different.

Trying to use it as a browser
In the above image, I decided I should try to click on the links inside the Songbird browser, and I'm not sure if it's a good thing that it opened up my default browser of choice, or absolutely retarded. Given that I work at software company I am sure that this tiny behavioral decision must have taken forever, I can't even make up my own mind about it, might as well give them a pity point since I know that some poor developer probably had to switch this back and forth 8 times before this shipped.



Ultimately, as a developer and big proponent of open source, I can certainly appreciate what they're trying to do with Songbird. On the other hand, as a user of computers in general, I don't care for what they've acheived thus far. Making great software takes a HUGE investment of both time and money, looking over the pond of media players to iTunes for an example, which took over 7 years to get to where it is today and it still sucks (sort of). As a Mac developer, I would recommend ditching their insane reliance on Firefox's codebase and use WebKit as their internal browser and strive for more native interfaces, but that's just being picky now isn't it?

Final Score: -2 :(
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