Why Zeya?

I noticed that Zeya is now more than two years old. (Yow! Version 0.1 was released in August 2009! Thanks to you all for all the patches, by the way. Zeya has become much more popular than I would ever have guessed at the time.)

This got me thinking about what has, and hasn't, gotten better in that time with respect to music software, and why I thought Zeya was so useful in the first place.

Conceptually, you can think of any computer that is involved in playing your music as providing one or more of the following functions:

  1. Storage: storing your music in nonvolatile storage and retrieving it
  2. Control: letting you push buttons and see what is playing or available to play
  3. Playback: driving a set of speakers

Traditionally all three functions have been performed by the same computer. But there's no reason they can't all run on different computers, not when you have a moderate- or high-speed network connecting them all. You might ask why you would actually want to separate these functions. The answer is that each function is best suited to be performed by a computer with a specific set of attributes, and the requirements for all of the functions are at odds with each other, and so require some compromise if they are to be colocated.

  1. Storage wants to be done on a computer that has an enormous disk and is possibly continuously backed up.
  2. Control wants to be done on a computer that is easy to reach (physically), possibly even one that fits in your pocket or can otherwise be carried around.
  3. Playback wants to be done on a computer that permanently sits somewhere you want to hang out and is attached to a set of sweet speakers.

The original impetus for writing Zeya was that it became clear to me that storage constraints were becoming increasingly annoying. People switched their portable devices from spinning rust (classic iPod and laptop HDDs) to flash memory (smartphones, smartphone-like devices like the iPod touch, and laptop SSDs), and all of a sudden, with the accompanying drop in capacity (most smartphones, for example, top out at just 16GB or 32GB), many people could no longer carry their entire music collection with them.

At a higher level, Zeya completes the trio of tools that lets you decouple the components in varying ways:

  1. Zeya and similar tools decouple storage from control and playback. Conceptually Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music are doing the same thing, too, though there the storage happens in the cloud.
  2. X11 decouples control from storage and playback.
  3. PulseAudio decouples playback from storage and control.

(If you use any two of those, you can completely decouple all three functions, modulo the fact that X11 and PulseAudio don't work very well over high-latency links.)

There has long been a patchwork of pieces that provide flexibility along one or more of the above dimensions (iTunes, Sonos, etc.) and have various tradeoffs; though, only in the past year have we seen the launches of high-profile products like Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music, which are more directly analogous to Zeya. All the attention in this area means that people are finally starting to understand the possibilities of the technology. Namely, that when you have network access everywhere, physical distance (and the need for the colocation of certain things) becomes much less important.

3 comments:

  1. Hi! I'm currently running Zeya on my desktop computer at home (which uses Ubuntu 10.10) and accessing it from my netbook or my pc at the workplace, both using Firefox stable.

    I'm considering getting a smartphone or tablet in the coming months and I'd like to know if I'll be able to play my music through Zeya on a mobile browser. Is there a kind of device or mobile OS / browser I should prefer for that task?

    Thanks in advance for your help and for providing us with such a great piece of software! :)

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  2. Yeah, we've been trying to figure out the best way to support mobile devices. Unfortunately, mobile browsers don't support the audio APIs in the same way that the desktop ones do, so Zeya doesn't work on mobile devices as-is.

    However, I don't think there's a reason to prefer any particular device or mobile OS, since nearly all the mobile browsers run pretty similar versions of Webkit.

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  3. Ok! Thanks for your reply! :)

    ReplyDelete