Written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus
Music makes us happy. So happy in fact that we shake, smile and fork off billions of dollars every year on it. So it is not an accident that music is one of the most popular forms of media online.
Because the music market is large, there is an opportunity for innovation. We have recently seen a lot of new services such as Last.fm and Pandora jumping into the music market to compete with iTunes and more traditional music sites. In this post, we will discuss another newcomer - a mashup between a desktop music player and a web browser called Songbird.
Songbird at a glance
Songbird is really just that - a mixture of a music player and the web browser. Built on top of the open-source Mozilla code base, this desktop application lets you manage your local music collection, search for new music online as well as instantly play any music on blogs and web sites.
You maybe thinking: So what? Why mix a music player and a web browser? We already have great applications that play music and let us browse the web. While this is true, we think there are good reasons to mash them up, particularly for music and perhaps for other things as well. The thing is: Songbird really understands music, understands the web and understands what people want to do with music on the web.
For example, the Songbird left pane contains a folder called Music Blogs, which comes with a few preset blogs. When you select a blog, the content loads in the central area, just like in the web browser. But in addition, Songbird displays a pane on the bottom that lists all tracks found on the current page. Below the pane, there are controls to play the selected song, add it to your playlist or library, download it or subscribe to the songs on this blog.
So Songbird is bringing semantics, or understanding of music, to the context of the blog. With the regular browser you would just see the page, but the music-aware browser is able to create much richer and much more meaningful experience. Even the common Subscribe action takes on a different meaning - you are asking to subscribe to new songs that appear on this page.
Yahoo! pipes. Songbird is another good example of this growing trend, because it treats the web as a music database. As shown in the picture on the left, Songbird replaces the standard search engines with the set of ones specific for music, making the music searches quicker and more relevant.It is becoming more clear that the web is turning into a gigantic database. We explained this trend in our recent post about
Do desktop/web blends make sense?
Songbird solves a problem of bringing together our local music libraries and vast amounts of music online. This clearly makes sense for music, but what about other sectors. In general, does it make sense to have desktop applications that interact with the web? Now, just like a year ago, I think that the answer is yes.
The main reason is that contextual, semantical, specific applications can always deliver additional value to the end user. The browser cannot have features that satisfy everyone's specific needs, and this implies the opportunity for a specialized application. Put it differently, specialized applications give the users another, more fine grained view of the same information that the web browser presents in a rather generic way. And that we know is a big business, because the nineties was the decade of Visual Basic on our desktops doing just that - showing different views of the same data.
However, there are challenges. While having more intelligence in the application about the data always makes sense, in the case of building web-aware desktop applications there are challenges. First, the web consists of links and people expect to be able to click. What value can Songbird add if the user navigates from a music blog to CNN? Probably none. Worse, because it has a music specific UI, it now takes up real estate on the screen - which just distracts the user.
Despite the challenges, we are likely to see more desktop applications tapping into the web. The amount and quality of the data is just too good to pass up. But these applications need not to be browsers. In fact, iTunes, has been basically doing this successfully for many years now. Its first secret: a complete UI that presents a meaningful view of your music data. The second secret is that links are handled within the application, so the users never have to switch around.
Coming back to Songbird, it seems that it has the potential to become popular. As it matures, it is likely to create truly a unique view and experience of online music. There are enough music fans out there to appreciate this sort of thing. What do you think about Songbird and other desktop applications that interact with online information?