foobar2000 Is Dead or Dying: Part 1

Originally written June 30, 2007.

There’s always been a significant faction of foobar2000 users whose primary attraction to the player is its appearance, or rather the level of control given to its users over its appearance. In its infancy, with the standard (and still default) UI, very little was possible — the main window consisted solely of a tabbed playlist and several functional toolbars — but people nevertheless took a lot of pride in making it their own, and some impressive things were done with relatively minimal flexibility. It was in the standard UI that users began experimenting with album-level presentation, choosing not to repeat redundantly the artist and album name on each line of the playlist, but to use the second, third, and sometimes fourth lines to display other info, such as year, label, genre, replaygain info, etc. Each of these customizations was unquestionably unique, but most of the broad details of the interface were consistent and inescapable.

The Columns UI component began as an experiment in allowing for multiple columns within the playlist display, emulating the Windows Explorer “Detail” view (and many other Windows programs), with sortability via clickable column headings. Eventually Columns UI added a sidebar and, later, panels, allowing the whole foobar window to be split up indefinitely into panel-based component displays, the playlist viewer becoming just another one of these. This granted much greater flexibility, allowing users to tailor the interface even more precisely to their needs. You could now display album art as prominently as you wanted, or not at all; your entire library tree could be embedded within the main window, rather than tucked away in a pop-up; and with the trackinfo panel’s exceptionally lax (by that era’s standards) stylizations, the personalization of your foobar became even more addictive, and, more importantly, rewarding.

Many seemed hell-bent on concocting the most garish presentations imaginable: giant gothic blue-on-black custom fonts, deep-red 200-px-tall spectrum analyzers, all, of course, coupled with custom OS “vis.”

While some still preferred the purity and elegance of the standard UI, the personalizations made possible by Columns UI were inarguably functional ones, for the most part. Fonts, colors, distribution of panels, and a rudimentary method of text alignment were really as far as you could go. At the core of all the boasted screenshots was a recognizable structure, all slight variations on the theme of playlist+trackinfo+albumlist+albumart. Outside of displaying album art, there was nothing profoundly new that Columns UI allowed you to do — rather, Columns UI gave you more control over how you did what you needed to do.

And yet, many (and in increasing number) seemed hell-bent on concocting the most garish presentations imaginable: giant gothic blue-on-black custom fonts, deep-red 200-px-tall spectrum analyzers, all, of course, coupled with custom OS “vis” and the most tasteless collections of death-/black-/speed-metal slash industrial slash deep house techno. For whatever reason, people are attracted to this, and these screenshots rapidly brought more curious foobar novices into the forums, wanting a “cool” music player of their own.

At the time, these people were not in the majority of new enlistees. Many continued to jump on board for the incomparably robust program that was still very much the heart of the foobar community, despite all the dressing up. The occasional rogue thread would crop up, asking questions that had been answered countless times before; the new user would be chastised, sent to another relevant thread, answered directly, or any combination of the three. These occurrences were perennial but negligible, and besides, they fell into the unspoken hierarchy of usership; it was the role of the foobar sophomores to help these people out, because they had only recently been in a similar position.

Foobar2000 was in a state of relative stasis. Version 0.9, the successor to 0.8.3, was released in early 2006; the set of “essential” core components was more or less firmly established, only waiting to be perfected; users tweaked their interfaces, inching ever closer to an asymptotic UI utopia; things were good.

Two seemingly simple components engendered a monumental shift in the way people thought about foobar.

Eventually, the inflexibility of the trackinfo panel began to bother some people, particularly that each instance of a trackinfo panel was limited to one font and size. A user named terrestrial began developing “Track Info Panel Mod,” which allowed for in-panel font changes, as well as the inclusion of images. It was this last feature, images, where things really began to get off track. The freedom to arbitrarily place any image within the foobar window is almost strictly unfunctional, motivated purely by the desire to make foobar look good. The introduction of this component encouraged a shift in mentality about foobar, producing ever more flashy screenshots, and attracting ever more users seeking eye-candy.

As Track Info Panel Mod evolved and grew in popularity, people craved increasingly more control. The functionality was amended hastily, by sloppy, ad hoc revisions of the bizarre, cumbersome formatting language. Still, it was only one component, it had found a niche, and it kept to itself.

A few months later, terrestrial began development on a second component, “Single Column Playlist” (SCPL). This began as a simple attempt to replace Columns UI’s playlist view, which, ironically, is the one thing that Columns UI was originally created for. Rather than a static grid of multiple columns and rows, terrestrial envisioned a blank canvas, much like Track Info Panel Mod (TIPM), upon which images and track info could be laid with almost total freedom. Additionally, SCPL was able to group playlist items into collapsible albums, introducing the kind of album-level handling that had eluded foobar users for so long.

One got the sense that people were beginning to believe that foobar was TIPM/SCPL.

Meanwhile, TIPM had begun to allow foobar commands to be associated with images, so that images in the panel could act as buttons. This was naturally extended to SCPL, and with that, two seemingly simple components engendered a monumental shift in the way people thought about foobar. TIPM and SCPL dominated huge portions of people’s foobar windows; the album art panel was rejected in favor of placing album art in TIPM and SCPL; statusbars, toolbars, and even titlebars were replaced with button-loaded TIPM panels. And with glassy effects everywhere, huge flame backdrops, and iTunes-like album art reflections, older components began to seem just that — old. An albumlist panel, with its Explorer tree appearance, and separated from the prettier panels by gray bars, was no longer acceptable as part of a seamless, highly stylized UI. Were these configurations functional? In some cases, yes, but largely, no — or rather, function was of a distant, secondary concern. 

The effects of this were twofold: first, the forums were flooded with people who had seen these screenshots and wanted a decked-out music player to match their translucent, purple-LED-spangled case mods; second, because of TIPM/SCPL’s convoluted new formatting language, foobar’s already notorious learning curve was pitched to unprecedented new heights. Avatar-less users were everywhere, starting new threads with their first post, asking questions about TIPM/SCPL. These questions belonged in the components’ threads, of course, but one got the sense that people were beginning to believe that foobar was TIPM/SCPL.

Inevitably, TIPM and SCPL were merged into one component, Panels UI, which replaces entirely the Columns UI interface: “Panels UI looks and acts like one large Track Info Mod panel (advanced text positioning, multiple font configurations, displaying images, etc.) that can inside of it host new panels.” Alarmingly, a very recent poll shows that, out of 89 foobar users, 42.7% are using Panels UI. And the threads continue to this day:

Admittedly, Panels UI is capable of improving foobar’s functionality. If you took the time to develop a real expertise in the formatting language, the look and feel of foobar would be limited only by your imagination. And my suspicion that the graphics-intensive nature of Panels UI places an unjustifiable burden on your system resources has been largely untested (by me). Performance was the reason I got into foobar in the first place, and though I tried Panels UI for a few weeks with mixed results, the more measured, sober approach to foobar development demonstrated by older “essential” components ultimately drew me back to Columns UI, which I am still happily using today.

I do think it would be a wise solution to create a Panels UI section in the foobar forums. These threads are not going away, and never before has a single component spawned so many one-off threads. Unfortunately, the notoriously stubborn forum administrators would never agree to this, as it would violate the even-handedness with which foobar involvement has always been treated — “Why shouldn’t my component have its own forum?”

There is a new blog meant to report foobar news from the forums, but its focus, too, is primarily on Panels UI. But at least its posts are informative and considered, not thoughtless questions from frustrated n00bs, and it does allow and encourage contributions.

12 Responses to “foobar2000 Is Dead or Dying: Part 1”

  1. Mishail says:

    Very interesting thoughts. It seems that recent changes in foobar2000 (deprecation of metadb_display_hook API)are intended against that “Dead or Dying”.

    Thanks for posting that.

  2. Jay says:

    Thanks Mishail. And thanks for pointing out that API news. As you can see, I wrote this almost a year before posting it, and I haven’t been following the forums as closely as I used to. The abandonment of several components that I consider crucial to my foobar setup has left me using 0.9.4.x, and trends like the one described in this post left me with a diminished enthusiasm for the player in general. In 2005 and 2006, things looked great, but now I just don’t know. My money is on Songbird for the future; but until it’s perfected, my obsoleted yet functional foobar setup will have to do.

  3. nascent says:

    Great article, but I have to disagree. What ensures foobar’s longevity, is the fact these components aren’t default with foobar. By default foobar has the basic, low-resources setup.

    That is what has ultimately killed Winamp. By default winamp comes with everything, all enabled by default and toolbars etc on top of it.

    Yes you can custom install and reduce this stuff, but the average user doesn’t. Which is why Nullsoft concentrate on adding to the bloat instead of improving the core functionality.

  4. keitarNo says:

    While the PanelsUI craziness just stopped, it’s coming back with Panel Stack Splitter and EL Playlist, and it’s inside Columns UI.
    The titleformat language was clearly NOT designed for interface purposes, but you have to admit : having that level of control over your player is “cool”.
    For a striking example, see this :
    Also, nice blog.

  5. super7 says:

    I too respectfully disagree. What caused me to flock to foobar was not it’s aesthetics even though the things that people using Panels or Columns was appealing. What piqued my curiosity about foobar was and still are from the audio side of things: the numerous DSP components, the low resource footprint, and the audio fidelity (which was better than Winamp at the time of my switch). Masstagger, support for FLAC and monkey formats, and the superior media library management capabilities were also a bonus.
    Of course, with proper work an open source program can (and perhaps will) become a successor for foobar. But its been my assessment that much of the audio industry is bent on destroying anything that tries to apply open source to audio (example: why won’t my iPod support FLAC natively, yet will run unprotected wma?!?!). And I won’t hold my breath for a breakthrough open source project that can match the modularity, flexibility and fidelity of foobar.
    So while maybe foobar is seeing a decline from the aesthetic and the friendliness of its user base, in my heart it will always have a place for what is beneath the eye-candy.

  6. Andrew says:

    A while ago, I used Foobar because I was sick of iTunes & Winamp. The small foot print was great as opposed to the other bloat ware. Unfortunately I was unaware additional components at the time for additional features. So I eventually fell back to Winamp, much to my own dislike.

    After giving Songbird ago, I enjoyed the ease of use of additional themes and features but the 250mb memory it sucked up shocked me. I am sure there is logical explanation but when my laptop only has 1gb of ram it is totally unacceptable.

    Then I came across FofR. It looked great, from that it lead on finding out all the other amazing components (gapless playback, silence removal, lyrics, quick search, dsp for headphones). I thought I had hit the holy grail of music players & addon.

    To my dismay, I found out the incompatibilities between the new Foobar and FofR. The cancellation of development of Panels UI. It was really quite a sad story.

    I will still go ahead and use it for the additional components, but when the developers could have made something great. Something that blew everything else out of the water in every category. Now I just think what of what a missed opportunity it was.

  7. grrrrrr says:

    grrrr foobar is so fucking dead it’s making me sick. most components are shit nothing ever gets done or completed, everything bugs around like hell, there’s no single working lyrics plugin atm, fuck this fucking shit

  8. Woot says:

    Foobar200 development stopped with the leaving of cwbowron, acropolis and those. This happened due to the lack of Peter and some zealots to understand what criticism means. The developer is extremely thin skinned and all in all very unfriendly towards 3rd party developers. This is way many left the boat.

    Today, only minimal development is going on, and this is only some minor stuff like metadata compliance atc.

    A dying project, a missed opportunity, but which could be expected because we know Peter…

    1. Jay says:

      It was always so funny to me how reclusive Peter was, how he had this small priesthood making release announcements for him on the forums.

      In any case I run Banshee in Ubuntu now. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a good music player at this point, and probably never will be, so I’ve largely stopped worrying about it.

  9. bwat47 says:

    some of these comments look really silly now in 2014 xD. foobar2k is definitely not dead, and the panelsui sillyness has mostly died out. foobar is better than ever, ever since they introduced the improved defaultui with live editing in 1.x, which makes it very easy to users to make very functional, and non garish layouts very quickly :)

  10. Jay says:

    Glad to hear it, bwat47. I’ve been on Ubuntu and Mac for the last five years or so, so I haven’t touched Foobar in ages, but it’s still the best music player I’ve ever used. Most players for Ubuntu and Mac are pretty awful.

  11. Tom says:

    Still using foobar 8 years later. Also I only started using it in late 2013 so foobar is far from dying.

Leave a Reply