Interviewee: Stephen Lau
In this interview we talk with Stephen of Songbird. In specific, we talk about:
- How Songbird fits into the Mozilla pantheon
- Aligning user interests with those of content providers
- How Songbird fits into the larger world of open source media players
- Songbird’s business and revenue model in the near term and beyond
- Usability and expandability as strategic precepts
- Apple as an inspirational model
Sean Campbell: Let’s start with a little bit of a background on you, your work around the Songbird effort, the effort itself, and maybe a little bit about your work history in general prior to that.
Stephen Lau: Songbird is an open source desktop media player. It’s often referred to as an “open source iTunes,” although we’re trying to be a little bit more differentiated than that. We see a lot of the future of digital media as being sort of a mash up between what the user has in their local music collection and the content that’s available on the web.
The key differentiating factor between Songbird and other media players is our degree of web integration. You can see that in a lot of the standard features Songbird comes with, like display panes that show content contextual to what you are listening to, support for Internet services like online radio streaming, digital music stores, and that sort of stuff. We’re also doing some stuff moving forward with more social network integration, since we think consuming digital media is a very natural social experience.
Songbird is cross platform. We’re built on the Mozilla platform, so we support Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. I think we’re somewhere around 80% Windows users right now, but we do try to make sure everything is cross platform.
Sean: What sorts of advantages does being built on Mozilla offer Songbird?
That actually makes a nice business model for us, because there are a lot of partners out there–both service partners and device partners–that want to use Songbird as their desktop media player, whether it’s to support syncing with their devices or to support interaction with their music service.
They’re able to take Songbird and just build a nice extension to build really tight integration with their service or device, and ship that.
Sean: What’s the history of your personal involvement with Songbird?
Stephen: We’re a start up, so a lot of us have a lot of responsibility. My specific responsibility has been building a lot of the Songbird add-ons. Some of these will be familiar to most Songbird users, like the Shoutcast add on, the Concerts add on, and the Mash Tape add on.
I was also the key community partner with our developer community, meaning that I worked a lot with our developer community to help them build stuff, and I helped build out our wiki site with all the documentation and examples and all that sort of stuff.
I’m the guy that usually tries to be the first responder on the mailing list. I work with all of our partners and help support them in building stuff on top of the Songbird platform as well.
In the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot more core application development, as we’ve picked up a lot more features that we’re trying to push out. So we’ve been growing the team a lot in the past month, trying to take up a lot of the extra features that we want to get out in the next few releases.
Prior to Songbird, I worked at Sun Microsystems for a while, on the OpenSolaris team. I was one of the OpenSolaris Governing Board members, so I’ve had a long interest in open source governance and how open source developer communities work, whether functionally or dysfunctionally.
Sean: How does a project like Songbird fit into the overall set of applications that Mozilla provides?
Stephen: There is philosophical as well as technical alignment. We’re not looking just to build another open source app, because there are other open source media players that are quite good, like Rhythmbox, Amarok, and XMMS.
Many of these have been around for a while, and for the most part, they’re all building fairly similar open source media players. Where we have a strong alignment with both the Mozilla corporation and the Mozilla philosophical community as a whole is with regard to the message of an open web.
Firefox is obviously the cornerstone of Mozilla’s open web message, in terms of keeping close to standards, open methods, open formats, and open protocols. The goal is to conform to open standards rather than what a lot of browsers were doing in the past, where for example, each browser did their own implementation of CSS and you had a big divergence.
That philosophy maps very strongly to digital media, where there are concerns about DRM, many different formats, and many different devices that all speak their own private languages. The iPod speaks a closed iPod transport protocol, and there’s also MTP, which is Microsoft’s answer to supporting DRM on Windows, as well as USB mass storage.
There are at least those three major protocols for doing device transfers. If you get into media formats and codecs, it’s huge. You’ve got Quicktime with Apple’s Fairplay, you’ve got Windows Media DRM, and you’ve got Intertrust DRM. It seems like every record label is trying to figure out their own path in terms of how to protect their content.
Sean: So, from a user’s perspective, there’s a layer of complexity that’s at cross-purposes with their interests. How do you approach creating a more user-centric approach?
Stephen: Even though there are so many different formats to resolve against each other, the user doesn’t really think in terms of file formats and codecs and DRM lockers and devices.
They think in terms of tasks such as wanting to copy a song they downloaded off the Internet onto a computer and a portable media player. Right now, that’s tough, although if you have an Apple iPod and use Apple iTunes and buy all your content from the Apple iTunes store, then it’s a really nice experience.
And kudos to Apple for doing that, because they were the first company to really streamline things from the user perspective. They took on the whole issue of getting content off the web and on to the user’s device in a really nice, simple, elegant manner.
But that hasn’t really been done for anything that’s non-Apple. If you try to change any part of that equation, like buying music from the Amazon store, or from the 7digital music store, or streaming using Last.fm or any sort of web service like that, the process often breaks.
So what we’re really trying to achieve is to create a similar but broader seamless user experience. We want a world where the user doesn’t have to worry about where their content came from and it’s simple to put it on their device to use it the way they want. Moreover, if they get a new device a year or two years from now, they should still be able to get that content onto their new device.
We’re really trying to champion that message of open formats and open protocols for the digital media space, which obviously Mozilla has done really well for the web browsing space. In a nutshell, that’s our philosophical alignment.
There’s a large set of users who use Firefox for its simplicity or its extensibility as a web browser. It really is the only web browser with such a huge extension community, where you can find extensions to do all sorts of things. You don’t see that level of support in IE or Opera or Safari. Chrome’s going to have it at some point in the future, but not yet.
The ability to take those same skills and use them to extend a media player has been a really powerful capability.
Is there any symmetry between that argument and what Songbird is trying to do with the other media players? In other words, is there an analogy between that call for following standards in the browser world and the ability to access media on different platforms and devices?
Stephen: That’s definitely something we’ve thought about in terms of long-term planning, and I agree with you that that’s what Google is doing with Chrome, which I think is great. It’s good for Google, but it’s also great for the entire web developer community, to have additional competition.
Songbird has always looked very favorably upon the other open source media players out there, just because we think competition is good. We get a lot of users filing bugs against us, saying, “Well, I can do this in Amarok or Rhythmbox. Why can’t I do this in Songbird?” And that’s great just in terms of competition pushing each other.
We’ve talked informally with the makers of a couple of the other media players, like Amarok and Rhythmbox, about the ways to do web integration. It’s something that obviously we have today, and it’s something that Rhythmbox and Amarok want to have, I think, going forward: tighter service integration.
We’d like to make sure we’re all doing stuff together in a way that makes sense, and so that we’re not splintering the community. We don’t want a digital media site to put out a new store that has to build code that says things like, “If Rhythmbox, then do this. If Amarok, then do this. If Songbird, then do this.”
We’d really like to make sure the way we do the web integration is uniform, so the API that we use and that we’ve defined is open. Anyone can develop their own thing to the same API, and we’d love it if Rhythmbox, Amarok, or any of the other open source media players adopted it.
We haven’t seen any other media player adopt the level of web integration that we’ve got today. At this point, if anyone did start to do that, we’d love to work with them to closely define a spec that works for everybody.
Sean: Where does Songbird sit in terms of a revenue growth model? Obviously, there may be things on the radar that you can’t discuss freely, but it’s been communicated how you as a larger organization generally make money, fund projects, and so forth.
Are there thoughts to different monetization strategies around Songbird or ways to get parents or sponsors that might be different than the traditional ones you have engaged with in the past, to continue to fund this effort and others like it?
Stephen: Actually, that brings up a good point that I should probably clarify. Songbird is a totally separate project that is not funded at all by the Mozilla Foundation or the Mozilla Corporation. I know that’s often a point of confusion for some users who think we are an officially sanctioned Mozilla project like Thunderbird and Sunbird, which do get funding from the Mozilla Corporation.
We get asked about our business model all the time, and we’ve got different models for the short term and long term. Short term, we’re doing a lot of licensing deals, where we license Songbird to device manufacturers as well as service providers who are interested in having a desktop player.
For example, this model is useful to a company that makes a portable mp3 player and wants an iTunes-like experience, but doesn’t want to develop their own iTunes. They can license Songbird from us. Likewise, there are online music stores or other types of music services that want a seamless desktop integration like iTunes with the iTunes store, but who also don’t want to implement their own analog to the iTunes desktop player.
I can’t publicly say the name of the device manufacturer yet, but of the service providers, the largest right now is Qtrax, which got some infamy last year with a free advertising-supported peer-to-peer music service. 7Digital is another service partner with their digital music store, which is huge in Europe but not so big in the US. They’ve just launched a US store, and they’re filling out their catalogue now. It’s sort of a typical software licensing deal, and it has kept us afloat now for the short term and probably for the next few years.
Longer term, what we’d really like to do is along the lines what Mozilla’s done with Firefox and Google, where Mozilla has Google as their default home page and default search engine for Firefox, and they get affiliate revenue from Google from every user that’s using it and clicking ads and things like that.
I forget the exact figure, but I think Mozilla Corporation made something like $60 million last year off that. We’re looking to do something similar with service partners. You can easily imagine tons of services that partner naturally with a media player, such as music search, lyrics search, free music downloads, music blogs, and all those sorts of things.
We’ve had a lot of interest from these music service providers who are saying, “How much can we pay you guys to be your default music blog or your default music search engine?”
We’re starting to explore those business opportunities now, but our user base frankly is not big enough to support the company on that sort of affiliate revenue at this point. That’s probably going to be a good long-term business model for us, once we’ve built up a big user base.
Sean: It seems to me too that you are in a really wonderful position in terms of extending the usablity of great tools like WinAmp, which were a little inaccessible to some general end users. You may be in a position to move much faster than the more OS-dependent players like iTunes and Windows Media Player. You also wouldn’t necessarily be as constrained with the requirements of having to shift along with a larger OS.
You guys would seem to have the mobility over time to pick up enough momentum of being the player of choice, because you’re able to latch onto trends and new music services faster than others, as well as being cross-platform.
Stephen: We’ve made a very conscious effort to make our whole development process very agile. I know agile development is a term thrown around a lot these days, but I think of all the media players, we are the most agile. We cut releases about every three months or so, and we can be very quick to respond to when users want new features.
Obviously, we have to balance priorities between partner-requested features, community-requested features, and the features we want to develop ourselves.
Sean: The concerts add-on is a great piece of software, and it also implies a very compelling monetization model. It’s a great way to establish links between things like concert-ticket sales and album purchases, by means of metadata.
With other players, the process is far more manual. Even though there are some add-ons for iTunes, for example, it’s not nearly at the same level as where you guys are headed.
Stephen: Part of the reason for the difference there is that, like a lot of Apple products, iTunes doesn’t have proper public APIs. There are plugins that exist for iTunes, but they have to go about things in a very backdoor-ish sort of way. What we’ve seen with the Mozilla platform and open source in general is that when you make solid public developer APIs, people find really awesome ways to use them.
Sean: What is your take on Apple and openness? At venues like OSCON and Linux World, the whole place is filled with Macs. I love my Mac, but it’s really not an open platform, and it seems to me that you are in a good position to educate people about that deficiency in Apple’s products.
I’m not trying to paint you in an adversarial position, but like you said, they don’t have open APIs for a lot of stuff. I think that’s something people step over without even noticing it.
Stephen: We wouldn’t be developing Songbird if it wasn’t for iTunes, which has created this entire digital media marketplace. I think your point about OSCON and so many open source users showing up with Macs really just reinforces the message that when you build a really great product, people will use it regardless.
Mac OS has been great for developers, because they have a really easy time getting up and running to develop code. All the developer tools are fantastic, so even if you’re building stuff for an open source OS, the Mac is still a great development platform.
A lot of the features that we build into Songbird are obviously reminiscent of iTunes. The look and feel is very consciously made to help iTunes users feel at home. We try to make sure that your average, everyday user can use Songbird, and quite frankly your average everyday user is most likely an iTunes user in this day and age.
I think what Apple has done really well is to create a fantastic user experience. When you buy music from the iTunes store to use on your iPod, it’s a really seamless experience, and that’s something we very consciously try to emulate.
We want to make sure that every user has as seamless an experience as possible with whatever device, OS, and music service they are using from inside Songbird. We think very highly of Apple, and what they are doing drives a lot of what everyone in the industry is doing for digital media, and I don’t think Songbird’s any different there.
Sean: Well, I want to be sensitive to the time, so do you have any closing thoughts?
Stephen: If you look at the trends on the Internet these days, it’s all either cloud computing, social networking, digital media, or some combination of all three. I think our future road map is largely concerned with how we can integrate with a social network experience and social media.
We’ve got a lot of cool ideas, and we’ve started throwing up design mockups and stuff on the Songbird wiki and getting user input on those.
This whole space of not just downloading free music but getting music from my friends, sharing it with my friends, recommending music to my friends, and buying music and giving it to my friends is really exciting.
It seems like every other day, there’s some sort of new digital media service launching. I think that shows huge opportunity for growth in the digital media space, and Songbird is so naturally ready to integrate with a lot of these web services that I’m super psyched about it. I’m really excited to be working on the project.
In the immediate future, we are working on parity features like podcasts and CD rip, because a lot of our users need those. Longer term, like six to nine months from now, when we’re fully focused on implementing new differentiating features, you’re going to see a lot of exciting stuff come out of the Songbird project.
Sean: Your passion and enthusiasm definitely show through. Thanks for taking the time to talk today.
Stephen: Absolutely. Thank you.