If it’s everywhere, is it special?

4553i114AB80206EE34C5Once upon a time, not too long ago, in the latter part of the last century – say the 60’s and 70’s, consuming media was clumsy and cumbersome. It seemed that you had to make a special appointment with your hardware to listen to the latest band or show some friends your latest photos. You had one device for each media, and sharing and consuming media was not something you did every day, on a whim, or easily. You had to have a special place to consume your media. And you had to set aside special time for it.

Radio was ‘the’ medium that gave you instant gratification back in the day. Everyone had one, or two, and had a favourite station or music program. The catch was, a station could only broadcast one thing at a time. So if you weren’t into old-time polka music, you had to find another station to listen to, from a handful, perhaps. We all had favourite stations and programs.

Portable music was your little transistor radio. AM. The Sony Walkman wouldn’t be developed for a few years yet. Apple was a record label that the Beatles recorded with. The computer company didn’t exist yet either. There really wasn’t a concept of a personal music player.

In most homes, the ‘living room’ had all the majority of media devices; a hi-fi (record player), a TV, and that was it. Perhaps the hi-fi had an 8-track player or cassette. Home movies and photos were presented theatre-style – projected on a big screen (after reconfiguring the room and setting up said projector and screen). Eventually consumer-grade videotape systems were introduced, but still the problem of scheduling your media consumption existed.

Many of you likely remember such things, maybe even you’ve used them or owned them, but I’m guessing that a fair number of readers here wouldn’t know how to change the stylus in a turntable, nor the difference between Chromium Dioxide and Ferric Oxide audio tape. Such were (competitor) of technology, back in the day.

Fast-forwarding to today you easily see the how lifestyle technology has changed the way we share and consume media:

  • Movies on demand can be ordered instantly and delivered to any room in the house with today’s high bandwidth HD PVRs and routers
  • Photos are rarely stored in physical books. Rather they’re on computer hard drives, or better yet, on commercial photo sharing services (like flickr and Picassa) where they’re easily available, secure and regularly backed up.
  • The same for music, though today you really don’t need to store it. Rather than playback from a physical media device (LP, 45, CD etc) you can simply grab your computer and surf to one of the many online music stores. Or if you simply want to sample, it’s easy to use one of the streaming services like GrooveShark or Blip.fm.

Once some big-brained hackers somewhere realized that our media can be converted into bits and bytes, things changed. Those bits and bytes can be stored, moved, shared, delivered over this series of tubes called the Internet. That music, movie, whatever is now portable, and it doesn’t really care about format. I can play an mp3 on my computer, network-enabled blu-ray player, iPod, iPad, eBook reader, Phone, etc… you get the picture.

So now, we’re much more efficient at consuming and sharing our media when and where we want. There are many inexpensive technology tools that enable this, but are we better off?

Some days, I miss the excitement of bringing home a new album of music, putting it on the turntable and sharing the music with anyone in the house. That used to be something special. There was a little ritual associated with opening the album, cleaning the disc, and dropping the needle in the groove.

Somehow, opening a CD and sliding it into a player, or pressing ‘buy’ on an online music store just doesn’t have that same special sense of ritual, that sense that ‘we’re going to listen to music now, this is important, so sit down and pay attention’. Some days, consuming media just doesn’t seem as special as it once was.

I wonder what’s replaced it….I’ve not found it yet.



This post of is one of many I publish weekly at the Future Shop Techblog. Read more of my stuff here.


Songbird solves my multi-multimedia player dilemma

Between home and work, I have various Windows, Linux and Macintosh computers. I centralize my media on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, accessible by all. As you can imagine, I use different media players on all.

My biggest hurdle has been consistency in user experience. I’ve had to run iTunes on the Mac, Winamp, FooBar2000 or VLC on my XP/Vista boxes, and VLC on the Linux machines.

But today, I discovered Songbird, a Mozilla based media browser, with versions for all my boxen (Mac, Linux and PC).

The experience is quite similar to Winamp. Simply point songbird at your music directory and let it build a catalogue.

Bonus feature, Songbird also talks to my iPods perfectly. Transfer music, build playlists…everything works.

From the developers:

We’re working on creating a non-proprietary, cross platform, extensible tool that will help enable new ways to playback, manage, and discover music.

Songbird is currently just out of beta; current version is 1.0. But it’s a pretty slick piece of work for being so new. I’m already a fan of the FireFox-like AddOn features — LiveTweeter (a Twitter plugin), ShoutCast Radio (streaming audio), and a whole host of visual customization addons.

If you’re looking for a nice, clean, Open Source media player, give Songbird a try.

*** UPDATE*** [Dec.25.08]
One major annoyance for many Songbird users is the lack of a Watched Folder. Simply put, this lets you point Songbird at a particular media folder and import any changes into the Songbird library automagically. Developers are aware of this, and appear to be considering adding this functionality in future. I certainly hope so, as now it’s a cumbersum process to remember to update my Songbird library on every computer.

*** UPDATE*** [Mar.13.09] Songbird 1.1.1 has been released. Among the updates you’ll find the much-awaited Watched Folder.