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Rob Lord Archive
I downloaded the Songbird media player a few weeks ago and wanted to find out more about the background of the product and why it is different than iTunes, Winamp and the other players already available. I gave Rob Lord, one of the founders of Songbird a call. Rob is also one of the people that helped to make Winamp the massive app it became. Rob was kind enough to discuss the app and where it is headed with me. Below is a partial text transcript of the audio interview. Please listen to the audio for the entire discussion.
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Allen: I know you have a very exciting background, could we start with a bio about yourself?
Rob: My name is Robert Lord. I went to UC Santa Cruz studying information theory. I created a web site in 1993 called the Internet Underground Music Archive, which was the first site to offer high-fidelity music online. I then joined a company in NYC called N2K which in 1996 was the second largest cd e-tailer online behind cdnow. I suggested we get involved with a small software shop founded by Justin Frankel Nullsoft. He had started to build Winamp, it was at version .8 when I came across it. I was able to secure some large advertising deals for Winamp and Justin invited me out to Arizona to meet him and to join his company which I did. Justin and I worked together from about 1997 to 1999 and in May 1999 we were acquired by AOL for 100 million dollars. I stayed at AOL as the GM of Nullsoft. I then left to co-found a company called MediaCode that had a product called muse.net. We sold that company to Yahoo! and then I became the manager for the Yahoo! Jukebox for the first nine months. I then thought there was something that we could do is really compelling, unique and could really affect the future of digital media on the Internet and that is what we are doing with Songbird.
Allen: Provide some background on Songbird and what does it do for me?
Rob: Songbird is a mashup between a media player and a web browser. Apple has a silo architecture. A user can’t access the iTunes store through their web browser, it has to be using the iTunes software nor can you use a different media player with iTunes. Likewise if another store wanted to get to that user, Apple does not allow that either. No other services besides Apple services can access iTunes. Very similar to Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy back in the day. One blogger did a great job in explaining Songbird, is like iTunes if you ripped out the iTunes music store and replaced it with the rest of the Internet. Imagine a user of a media player being able to choose which services they want to subscribe or purchase from.
Allen: Does Songbird incorporate video or only audio?
Rob: It plays video as well. Turns out the technology to handle audio and video is similar. We are kind of focused on audio for now.
Allen: What was your main motivation to come up with a new media player, when there is real, winamp, windows and so forth?
Rob: Most of these media players are focused on the desktop set and then the ones that look out at the network are in this silo model looking at services made by the player. Same thing with the new Microsoft Zune, we believe it will also be in a silo model.
What Songbird does that is different is that we are looking to build out the standards and protocols of the mediaweb. So that any service can be delivered to any user who wants it. And the same with devices. So any device can used by any service by any user.
Allen: Does Songbird work with iTunes? If not, are there plans to somehow incorporate the two?
Rob: Right now no in this country. We will support all of the DRMs that we can but currently not Apple’s fairplay. There are some countries that are testing the limits of that. We imagine some open source guy will take advantage of the code to be able to play the tracks back. Only about 5% of media is actually sold online and when that next 5% comes online, all of the companies involved have a vested interested in owning their piece in the digital media value chain. We think everyone can agree on the Web architecture which is what Songbird proposes.
Allen: What is the technology behind Songbird?
Allen: How does Songbird find audio on my site? Is it with microformats?
Rob: That’s a really good question. The web is actually a plugin to Songbird. The web browser is part of our application. We find the files on your site and we show a web playlist and show the page inside the web browser. We think of the web as a giant media library.
Allen: How are you marketing Songbird?
Rob: We are only on version 0.2 and we are not really ready to market this as a media replacement yet. Our market right now is early-adopters and innovators. We think they are instrumental in making Firefox a success and we are looking to provide the same dynamics in the Songbird community. We made sure it is cross platform and that the extensions are also cross platform. We have a promise of being the Firefox of media players. We are looking for those people who know how exciting it would be to “play the web.”
Allen: You have been out there since Feb, do you believe you have accomplished everything you set out to do by now?
Rob: I would say no, it almost took twice as long as intended to get to 0.2. The Mozilla stack is really great for making Firefox and hasnt been used in making other applications but still has some holes in it that have kind of holding us back. We have 14 engineers in the house and a group who are media player focused and a group who are browser focused. The team is really on flow now and understand how to bring those disciplines together.
Allen: What is the thing that looking back since you started working on this project you wish you had done differently?
Rob: I don’t have too many complaints. The one thing that has always been successful is focusing on user utility, preferably in the form of disruptive innovation. That’s really the path of success. Look for the disruptive innovation and the user innovation and a community-centric development path. The users will remind you of what they need. Really look for ways to really reinvent the problem.
Allen: Are there plans to monetize the product – if so, how?
Rob: So there are a couple of things going on. We know that Firefox is making about $10 million a month with their partnership with Google. We have a similar search bar and we imagine we will do a visual media search partner as well. We also have that left sidebar of essentially bookmarks and we are looking to create a set of those. And there are affiliate service opportunities as well.
There are about 25-30 and the top 3 are reinforcing their silos and we are looking at partnering with the other ones on the list.
Allen: Do you see advertising based models like with video coming into play?
Rob: That’s a really good question. Some will embrace ads and some won’t. Whether that model or other models work, I am not sure, I don’t have a crystal ball. All of these models need to come out and play and be available to the end users.
Allen: What web apps do you use regularly?
Rob: Well I am on a MacBook Pro running Mac OS, Windows and Linux and I switch between them all day. We use 37Signals Basecamp all day, every day. We think its a great way to manage projects on the web and is a great way to coordinate a group. It never feels like it had 100% of the features we need, it has the 80% and we can normally figure out a way for the balance. We love 37Signals Basecamp.
Thanks for participating Rob and thanks to you for reading/listening. I appreciate it! I think Songbird has a bright future ahead of itself as it builds toward the 1.0 version.
If you would like to participate in a conversation on CenterNetworks, or if you have any comments or questions, let me know.