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Free your iPod

Last Updated Feb. 9, 2006

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The iPod is more than an excellent music player. It's more than a technological trend. Like the Sony Walkman before it, it's destined to become an icon of this decade.

Unlike the Walkman, it is truly iconic. You could ask a four-year-old to draw one and she'd probably do a pretty good job. Rectangle. Square. Big circle. Little circle. That simplicity of design is a big part of its success.

It's not without its detractors, though. Early models had battery life issues. When the fifth-generation iPod (with video playback) and iPod Nano debuted there were concerns about the durability of the casing.

The iPod can't play some audio formats, notably the open source compression scheme Ogg Vorbis. And the newest iPods are very limited in the video formats they can play: only MPEG-4 files, with file names ending in .m4v or .mp4. Not even QuickTime movies, Apple's own file format, will run. And unlike some digital music players, the iPod has no FM radio.

You can't use an iPod without a computer, and the software side of the iPod equation has also been criticized. Apple designed the iPod to be used with its own media software, iTunes, although other software can be used. In fact, Apple shipped the first iPods compatible with Windows computers with Musicmatch Jukebox, before iTunes was released for Windows. But these other players -- such as EphPod, XPlay and MediaMonkey -- vary in their compatibility with the iPod.

Some users don't like the iTunes interface, and some don't like how much memory it takes to run. Also, songs bought through the iTunes Music Store can only be played on iTunes and the iPod.

For these reasons, some iPod users are forever looking for "iTunes killer," a program that will work as well with the iPod as iTunes, but without its limitations. So you can forgive them for going a little nuts Wednesday when software developers Pioneers of the Inevitable unveiled Songbird. Songbird is a "web player," combining elements of a web browser and a media player. It's built using the same architecture as the web browser Mozilla Firefox, and that's one of the reasons for the buzz surrounding it.

Like Firefox, Songbird can accept extensions, which are enhancements, often written by users, that can be installed to add features to the program. The ability to accept extensions is one of the reasons for the success of Firefox. Don't like ads? Install an extension that blocks them. Want to know what the weather is? Install an extension that constantly updates conditions and displays them. And if Songbird doesn't support a certain audio format, well, maybe someone will write an extension for that, too.

The developers behind Songbird have previously worked on Winamp, a media player that's been around since 1997 and is one of the most downloaded pieces of software ever.

Songbird is still in its "proof-of-concept" stage, and users have reported crashes and other problems. And it doesn't yet support synchronization with the iPod. Watch for the extension for that. It may not be a program you want to try yourself yet. But the Pioneers of the Inevitable (gotta love that name) are working on it.

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