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Farewell Songbird, We Hardly Knew Ye

Songbird, the popular open source cross platform music player, has decided to dump support for Linux. Such a move could be fatal and here's why.

Earlier this month it was revealed that open source music player, Songbird, will drop support for Linux and concentrate on Windows and OS X. Needless to say, the Linux community hasn’t received this news very well.

Songbird was created in 2006 and is best known for is cross platform nature. Heavily influenced by iTunes, it aims to be a complete open source replacement for the dominant music player. (See Open Music Player, Songbird, Releases 1.1)

Clarity

It’s very important to understand exactly what the development team behind Songbird are going to do. Let’s take a look at the announcement:

“Some of you have noticed that the Linux version has fallen behind, leading to some heated, but healthy debate internally about how to prioritize the development hopper. After careful consideration, we’ve come to the painful conclusion that we should discontinue support for the Linux version of Songbird.

“We will maintain a version of the software for use by our Songbird engineers who develop on the Linux platform. We’ll make that version available to the community. We will keep Linux build bots and host the Linux builds on the developer wiki. That said, those builds will not be tested and may not pick up new features developed by Songbird’s team.”

So essentially, the team will continue to create automated builds of it, but they won’t be tested, won’t be fixed and won’t be improved. In other words, Songbird for Linux is being killed off.

Songbird running under Linux
Songbird running under Linux

Your first reaction might be one of anger and disappointment, and perhaps rightly so. Many in the comment thread agree. It is important to remember however, that this is not your project, it’s theirs. It’s a free software project and they have the right to code what they like. That doesn’t make it the right decision, however.

Due to the nature of the replies, the comment thread was closed. One Songbird developer wrote:

“Sadly, the conversation going on in this comment thread is not constructive. This is why we are closing the comment thread. I think at this point we’ve gotten that Linux users are angry, irate, fuming at us dropping official Linux support.”

You’re damn right many Linux users of Songbird are angry. A reader by the name of Forest replied, saying:

“Yes, people are angry and they have good reason to be. Linux users have long been promised that POTI would start adding MSC, MTP, CD Rip, video playback, etc. in Linux as soon those features were finished on other platforms. Now those features are complete on other platforms, and instead of devoting a development cycle or two to Linux (you’ve already devoted many additional development cycles to Windows/Mac), you’re dropping Linux support altogether.”

Not only that, but the corporation behind Songbird, POTI Inc, has benefited from contributions by Linux users and developers for the last number of years, and now they’re taking all of those and leaving us out in the cold. Darn.

While Songbird doesn’t have to support Linux, they should. Why? Because the FOSS community primarily lives and breathes Linux. The danger in this decision is that Linux developers will walk away and the project will stagnate, unable to fulfill its goals because those they needed around to make it happen have gone! The developers claim they are a small team that must stay focused on a small set of priorities. Fair enough, but as an open source project, perhaps their number one priority is looking after their suppliers – fellow FOSS developers. Cut yourself off from your suppliers and your FOSS project dies. It’s as simple as that.

Contributions

Sure, the project’s goals are to become big in the Windows and OS X world and to dethrone iTunes. Go for it. While these goals might not directly encompass Linux, as an open source project the Linux platform simply cannot be ignored. Indeed, the team admits that Linux users have contributed enormously to the project, in many more ways than one. They have not only contributed code, logged bugs, but they have helped to shape the Songbird community.

“While our Linux users are some of the most passionate, do some killer development, and always provide tremendous input as to whether we’re on the right path or not, we simply can’t continue to support a Linux version as we have in the past.”

If this is the case, then one has to wonder how the project can afford to not support Linux. To shun these contributors could be a fatal mistake. How well will the project run if all of these passionate, tremendously insightful killer developers walked away? Perhaps we’ll soon see.

It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve been loyally supporting a project and they turn around and say that you’re no longer important. While the Linux community should perhaps take this decision gracefully and respect the project’s decision (after all, they have every right to do so), human nature will override the best of intentions and this decision will certainly push many Linux users and developers away. Just read the comment thread. I mean who, after hearing a project say that they are not important enough, would be inspired to take up the mantle and make it work better? Very few.

Had the project said how much they love Linux users and developers, and reiterated how much the project needs them, then the outcome could have been completely different. Now that would have been inspirational! Why they did not ask for help rather than killing off Linux support, is unknown. There has not yet been a follow up post explaining these questions. Perhaps the only conclusion to draw is that they really don’t care about Linux at all, and that’s certainly not going to inspire new contributions!

Had they put out a call for help rather than canceling Linux support altogether, this is how the announcement could have read instead:

“Our Linux users are some of the most passionate, do some killer development, and always provide tremendous input as to whether we’re on the right path or not. Thank you! However, the popularity of Songbird means we are swamped and we just can’t keep up. We are putting the call out for help to develop Songbird and make it even better for Linux, so that we can continue to support a Linux version as we have in the past. Please sign up to help today!”

It seems that the decision to remove Linux support was made long ago – determined by their burning desire for features for other platforms – and this is now just coming to light as a formal announcement.

Interpretation of evidence

To back up their decision and “bring additional perspective” about their decision, the Songbird team updated the original post with some statistics. Whether the statistics were gathered in the most appropriate manner is not known (they were only taken from the last 30 days), but even so, we can work with what we have. These carefully chosen statistics are supposed to paint the picture that the Linux desktop is irrelevant. That it’s just not worth developing for.

songbird-stats.png

First of all, let’s take a look at the very first statistic. Measured on “application usage on at least 3 distinct days within a 30 day period” (why that metric was chosen, we don’t know) we can see that Linux actually has greater market share in Songbird than users of OS X (by 0.1%). That certainly seems a reasonable slice of the pie and certainly not something to be taken lightly (indeed they claim that dropping Linux was no easy decision). Presumably these statistics are gathered by the “metrics” option available in the program, which when first loading the program, users have the option to turn off. Windows users are used to having their information sent all over the web (usually without their knowledge!) but Linux users are perhaps more conservative. Would you allow Songbird to send your information to POTI Inc, or have turned it off?

The statistics show that 73% of visitors to getsongbird.com (where the program is downloaded from) are Windows users. Once again, Linux has a higher percentage than OS X, but these statistics don’t really paint a true picture of interest. Indeed, the ratio of web site visits does not match the number of active users across the board. Also, given that many Linux users have probably installed Songbird via their system’s package manager (via official or third party repositories), download statistics from the website are bound to be highly inaccurate. Even so, Linux does have 15%.

Then there are bug reports. Were these reported against development versions, or against the aging stable release? By there own admission there has been few new features in the Linux version, but a stack of new features for Windows and OS X in recent development. If so, it’s no wonder there aren’t as many bugs against Linux. Plus, it’s also possible that it’s just more stable on Linux. That would hardly be surprising. They are trying to paint the picture that Linux users don’t contribute to bug reports, but perhaps that’s simply because there are fewer bugs to report. This is where context is extremely important.

Their statistic on usage share shows that only 1% of desktops run Linux worldwide, concluding therefore that it is not a worthwhile platform to develop for (interestingly, this “1% of users” is responsible for 25% of translations, 9% of bug reports and addons – well above the contribution ratio from other platforms!). The usage of that statistic is entirely bogus, because even going by their own statistics, 10.9% of Songbird users run Linux. That means that the Songbird community goes against the suggested market percentages. That should show you that a Songbird attracts a particular type of user. When it comes to contributions, that “irrelevant Linux group” does more work than OS X.

Let’s not forget also that Linux distributions already come with many powerful music player other than Songbird installed. Users of both Windows and Mac have a greater need for a free and open music player, but that doesn’t mean that Songbird wouldn’t have become more popular on Linux desktops too, just like Firefox did.

Looking ahead

It’s probably universally agreed that Songbird’s biggest strength was its cross platform nature. Like OpenOffice.org you can run the same version of the program on Windows, Mac OS X and of course, Linux. Needing just the one music application for any computer you use is a great advantage. It is also very handy for helping users migrate across to Linux permanently, as reader Scotland commented:

“As a Windows user who gradually shifted his apps over to cross-platform ones that would allow me to switch to Linux with minimal applications-related pain, this news saddens me. Having used Linux for almost a year as my main home machine, it was nice to see Songbird continuing to mature on my new platform of choice, Linux.”

What this will all mean for the project remains to be seen. Sure, some happy-go-lucky hackers might branch or fork the code, improve it for Linux and it might be merged back in. Others might come on and offer to continue Linux development directly (if the project is even interested).

However what is likely to have already happened is that the developers have split themselves off from a large section of the FOSS community. By doing so, they could be hurting the very people they need to improve the software and make it a success on all platforms. It might still become a highly successful iTunes replacement on Windows and OS X (and that would be great). However it’s unlikely to make much more of a dent in the Linux world because they have essentially turned their back on us. That’s a shame.

They had better hope that this is the right decision for their project and that they have drawn accurate conclusions from those statistics! Linux might only have 1% of the desktop market, but it has majority of the free software market. For an open source project to shun the very hand that feeds them could be fatal.

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