Songbird Beta (0.7)

Songbird Blog รƒโ€šร‚ยป Songbird Beta is Released!.

Having played with several milestone builds of songbird, I was keen to try this one. This is a big milestone for this music player & browser hybrid. Since I’ve blogged on this before, I will keep it short.

The good:

  • New feathers (songbird lingo for UI theme) looks great. Only criticism is that it seems to be a bit of an iTunes rip off.
  • Album art has landed
  • Stability and memory usage is now acceptable for actually using the application
  • Unlike iTunes, it actually supports the media buttons on my logitech keyboard.

The bad (or not so good since I have no big gripes):

  • Still no support for the iTunes invented but highly useful compilation flag (bug 9090). This means that my well organized library is now filled with all sorts of obscure artists that I barely know but apparently have one or two songs from. iTunes sorts these into compilation corner and I use this feature to keep a nice overview of artists and complete albums.
  • Despite being a media player with extension support, there appears to be no features related to sound quality. Not even an equalizer. Not even as an extension. This is a bit puzzling because this used to be a key strength of winamp, the AOL product that the songbird founders used to be involved with.
  • Despite being a browser, common browser features are missing. So no bookmarks, no apparent RSS feed, no Google preconfigured in the search bar, etc. Some of these things are easily fixed with extensions.

Verdict: much closer than previous builds but still no cigar. Key issue for me is compilation flag support. Also I’d really like to see some options for affecting audio playback quality. I can see how having a browser in my media player could be useful but this is not a good browser nor a good media player yet.

Flock

I just installed Flock – The Social Web Browser. Right now I’m trying out the blog editor included with it to write this little review. To cut the review short, I’m planning uninstalling it after publishing this post.

Lets just start by saying that this feels like a nice bunch of concepts and potentially useful Firefox extensions but not as a drop in Firefox replacement. Besides, the default theme feels rather amateurish and I already miss my dozen Firefox extensions. And while I am pleased that it supports Facebook, I find the lack of support for much else a bit disappointing. For example, I’m also on Linked in; phib; claimid. I have several openid logins; I use several Google services, including reader, gmail and calendar. All of these are unsupported by the self proclaimed social web browser. Hell, it doesn’t even integrate webmail from e.g. google, yahoo or microsoft (I have accounts with all three). You can find an overview of social networking sites I use on my blog: http://blog.jillesvangurp.com/my-other-sites/. Most of the stuff there is unsupported by Flock.

An exception seems del.icio.us. However, the extension functionality I get in Firefox is much better than the bundled del.icio.us support in Flock which is rather useless. Similarly, the blog editor is nice but nothing I can’t get using several Firefox extensions. I suppose the facebook sidebar is nice, but again there is also a firefox extension for that.

A rather novel feature seems to be the media bar. However, in its current incarnation it is limited to harvesting media from just a handful of popular sites like facebook (again), youtube and flickr. That’s nice but not all that useful to me.

So overall I have a bit mixed feelings. On one hand, this feels like a polished product, on the other hand there’s not much that I can’t get installing a few Firefox extensions. With Firefox 3 around the corner, I’m not planning to use Flock 1.0 based on the old Firefox without most of the extensions I can’t do without. Nevertheless, there’s some good ideas that I would like to see adopted in the form of Firefox extensions.

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QR codes

I just found this cool mobile barcoder extension for firefox that displays so-called QR codes that encode the url of the page you are currently looking at. QR codes are like bar codes, only 2-dimensional. For example:
QR code for my blog
(generated using this site: http://qrcode.kaywa.com/)

It so happens that my Nokia N95 (hey, there’s some benefit in working for a market leading mobile phone manufacturer ๐Ÿ™‚ ) includes a bar code reading application that is damn near useless reading old fashioned bar codes in dark supermarkets. The problem is partly with the optics in the camera which do not support macro mode photography very well (i.e. photographing subjects from something like 15cm doesn’t really work wel). A second problem is that while hovering with your camera over the barcode you generally block the light that falls onto it. This combined with real world situations where bar code equipped objects are generally indoors in possibly poorly lit places doesn’t make it easier. A final problem is that the old vertical bar codes are actually quite hard to scan properly with a camera since the thickness of the bars has meaning (four different bars) and the bars tend to be quite close together.

However, I just discovered the software handles QR codes displayed on a nice bright LCD screen a hell of a lot better. Just hold the camera about 30 cm from the screen, press scan code and almost instantly you have the url in the phone and can then proceed to open it in the S60 browser. QR is short for quick recognition and it really is quick. QR codes don’t have all the problems listed above and are basically optimized to be scanned using a camera. They include error correction. The three big squares are used for indicating the dimensions of the QR code to the software.

So, why is this nice? Well T9 is OKish for sending short messages to people with all vowels omitted but sort of sucks for entering urls. So if you quickly want to browse a url with your N95 (or any other phone with QR bard code scanning software), this is a pretty neat way to do it.

Songbird

As you may know, I currently use iTunes. And despite it’s quirks which include difficult to migrate library and the occasional instability it’s a very nice application overall and I’ve been reasonably happy with it for more than a year now (ever since I bought my ipod).

Well, there’s a great new music player called songbird. It’s been under development for little more than a year now. The development team includes some former winamp programmers. I was a great fan of winamp until I switched to itunes (shortly after this guy left AOL/winamp). Up until now the songbird development builds were interesting but not really worth using (I played with 0.1 a bit and it was unusable). That is starting to change though and how! It’s still a developer preview so don’t bother if you don’t have the nerve to use that kind of stuff. But if you do you are in for some treats. If you don’t, there’s a cool flash demo on the website. And yes, so far it more or less works as advertised (to my surprise, I was expecting performance/lag issues).

So, songbird is well on track to replace my iTunes setup, just not right now, maybe (I’m tempted though). I just installed it and it imported my itunes library and it’s currently playing my music just fine (important for a music player). On top of that the user interface looks very nice and seems very usable and responsive. Since it is based on the mozilla runtime (i.e. the same toolkit that Firefox and Thunderbird use), it inherits a lot of nice features such as extensions and themes (or feathers in the songbird lingo). The itunes library importer is one of the extensions. Another one that I have not yet tried is the ipod extension (synchronization!), that’s two important features for an ipod owner: Apple should get worried, busy or both.

The default feathers of both the website and songbird are very nice and stylish. The little birdy is sort of cute and the style sort of resembles the Jip & Janneke theme many Dutch people should at least be familiar with. Except this one has a weird puff coming out of its ass :-).

In addition to the usual gizmos, it integrates a webbrowser. This is used to integrate the internet into songbird properly. I.e. there’s a whole bunch of alternative music stores integrated. And they just work. It’s like magic. I type frank black in the search box, and a website pops up with some frank black tracks. Then more magic, a playlist appears below with the tracks. Ok I click play. And WTF! it starts playing more or less instantly. Without a hitch. That’s just super cool. There’s buttons to add the track to my library and to download. Apparently it supports podcasts in a similar way. This is the way internet radio was supposed to work years ago and still doesn’t work in any other media player I’ve ever tried. The search box uses search plugins just like slashdot. The default one is called the hype machine (which I’d never heard of before).

I guess the ‘secret’ behind songbird is its ability to extract links to music files from web pages and automagically construct a playlist for whatever web page you are viewing. There’s no reason why a normal browser couldn’t do that although most lack the features to do something useful with a music file other than handing it to a media player. Songbird does have that ability since it is primarily a music player that just happens to embed the mozilla browser. This concept works extremely well for any website that has downloadable tracks, pod casts or links to streaming audio (e.g. shoutcast).

I’m sure it has much more to offer and I’ll be playing with it a lot over the next week. As I said, this is a developer preview so wait for the 1.0 later this year if you can’t handle that. I’m not sure if I’ll wait that long though.

links for 2006-12-10

Microformats

I’ve been reading a lot about web 2.0, microformats and the social/semantic/whatever web lately and decided to start supporting some of this stuff on my blog. Specific actions I took:

  • I use the XFN features that come with word press in my links to people I know in the sidebar. I’ve been doing this for a while
  • I joined del.ico.us and added links from that site to my sidebar using the javascript they provide and the nice widgets plugin for wordpress that allows me to mess with the sidebar.
  • I installed the structured blogging plugin (read my hReview compliant review of that).
  • I converted my contact page to be hCard compliant. I wrote it by hand and pasted the HTML but you can also do this using the hCard creator. A nice feature is the download vCard link which converts the hCard to a vCard.

This enables a number of interesting features. For example the tails extension icon now detects stuff on my page; technorati picks up my reviews, etc. Btw. use your favorite search engine to look up most of the terms above, I’m not going to add 20 or so links to this post :-o. Of course this post is highly buzzword compliant so you might have found your way here using some of those words in a search query :-).