This is just going to be one of the first posts on my blog slamming Ubuntu 8.04. I mean specifically ‘Ubuntu 8.04’, and not Linux or Ubuntu in general. Call this a warm-up. OK, this one’s more about a different software project which is included by default in Ubuntu (even earlier editions) – it has nothing to do with Ubuntu itself except for the fact that they chose to ship it with their distro. That’s the reason why I dragged Ubuntu into this debate. Let’s admit it, Ubuntu has become the de-facto answer for newbies coming in to the Linux fold. Hell, even I suggest it to people using Linux for the first time.
The reason why I recommend it is because of the wide community support and rigid release schedule. Community support is the biggest thing, because newbies need help and they get a lot of that when they choose Ubuntu. Things like ‘I like APT’ and ‘Debian (the name) sounds nice’ are bullcrap.
So here’s the software I wanted to talk about – Rhythmbox. It’s the default music library management software which ships with Ubuntu; and I simply *can’t* fathom the reason why they choose this when there are better alternatives around. Yes, most of the *good* music management software are ‘Made for KDE’, but there’s no reason why a port can be made.
photo credit: karindalzielThe problem with Rhythmbox is that it’s definitely NOT up to the standard anyone switching over from Windows (or anyone else for that matter) would expect. The biggest pain in the ass is its mishandling of ID3 tags in MP3 files. Anyone with a decent music collection will know what I mean when I say ‘ID3 tags’, although they may not know it by that name. When you have a music file on your hard disk, it has its own filename. That files itself can hold stuff called ‘metadata’ – which in short is basically ‘data about data’.
In the case of MP3 files, no matter what the filename is, the MP3 file can store extra information stored in a structured manner – like the song name, artist name, album name, composers, track number, etc. The ‘standard’ to store this is using is called ‘ID3’ (which has two versions, the older version 1; and the newer version 2 which offers greater flexibility on what data can be stored). This data is generally stored at the start of an MP3 file, and then the actual audio part begins.
The reason why ID3 tags are important is because it can help organize and search through music collections easily. Because the data stored in them is structured – in the sense that it known that text entered in such and such field is the album name, and so on – music players and management software can use to search through items faster. They can even automatically sort MP3 files into neat folders depending upon the information tagged to the file.
Now the problem with Rhythmbox is that it goes a step ahead and does what no music management software is supposed to do – modify tags without a user asking them for it. You see, ID3 tags are not *essential* for a file – they may or may not be there. Some or all fields may remain blank, say, if you don’t *have* the data on who composed the track. This is normal, and should remain blank. Rhythmbox on the other hand acts to smart, and fills in any blank fields with ‘Unknown’. As a result of which, your music starts getting shunted into a folder for an artist called ‘Unknown’ for an album called ‘Unknown’ – even if they are sorted fine on the basis of their filename.
It’s quite disgusting, because at a time when music management software for Linux like Amarok and Lsongs have audio fingerprinting and auto-tagging of tracks, Rhythmbox takes a step backward and messes up music collections. If a field is blank, it could simply choose to show in ITS OWN interface as ‘Unknown’ without modifying the tags, but it doesn’t. Which means, if you open the same music library in Windows, or transfer it to a player it will be all messed up because it will now be sorted wrongly. Most other *good* software, even on Linux, can still search using the filename if a tag is missing, but when an ID3 is present is overrides everything else – so you can’t search stuff properly either.
The reason why this is important is because people who are using Ubuntu for the first time would be, quite naturally, pissed if they just even ONCE open up Rhythmbox, and then transfer files to their iPod (or any other music player). And it will make a very bad impression. People who’re fanatical about tagging (but not so fanatical about Linux) might never want to come back and use it again. Freedom to modify code is fine, but not at the cost of making crappy software. This is not a niche segment of people, because music in the digital format IS slowly taking over. People ARE switching more to MP3 on their personal music players than CDs. And Ubuntu DOES need to make the right decision on which packages to include.
Rhythmbox’s woes don’t only end here – it’s support for visualizations is pathetic (or non-existent, depending on which version you’re using), no proper management of album art and lyrics, networking with other players is sketchy, support for Internet radio and podcasts is also pretty bad. In short, it’s a mess. Support for interfacing with personal music players isn’t that great either.
What saddens me more is that THIS what many people are getting to see as ‘what Linux is like’ when they start with Ubuntu. It’s not as if good software aren’t there. By far the best and most clutter-free music manager I’ve EVER come across, compared with alternatives on ANY platform is Lsongs. I’m sure not many have heard of it. It’s the default media manager created for the Freespire / Linspire distro by their creators. Its interface is almost like iTunes, so people don’t feel at sea. Plus, it comes with extras like auto-tagging using MusicBrainz, a GOOD lyrics lookup and management system – the whole nine yards. Even though it uses the ‘iTunes-way’ of doing things – creating an XML file to store data about the library – it isn’t as resource-hogging like iTunes at all. Moreover, support for managing podcasts, browsing radio streams, connecting to music players like the iPod, and ripping CDs is great – with a NICE interface.
photo credit: Nano TaboadaThe other music library manager worth mentioning is Amarok. A ‘Made for KDE’ thing like Lsongs, it has everything that Lsongs has except with a geekier, power-user interface. Nothing which one day of use can’t overcome, so you can adjust to it quite easily.
Of course, both of these will run on GNOME too, given that their dependencies (a few KDE / Qt library files) are satisfied. My point is that Ubuntu has bears a BIG responsibility right now of SHOWING to the users free and open source software can be good. People will appreciate and support the free software movement when they’re explained the advantages, but if they see things like Rhythmbox, I’m afraid they’ll rather be taken in by the fear-mongering of the proprietary software advocates that ‘free software sucks’. It doesn’t – its just that people aren’t getting to see the best offerings for Linux in this field.
More coming soon on problems with Ubuntu 8.04. I know this post wasn’t specifically about Ubuntu 8.04 – it affects any distro which uses Rhythmbox – but this will put my subsequent post into a better perspective.
Update – If you’re using GNOME, then the best music player that you have right now is Banshee Media Player. Interface is similar to Rhythmbox but looks more polished. Has more features and doesn’t mess up your music collection.