Qtrax: The Music Service That Wasn't

Alas, how the mighty have fallen. Only not so much in Qtrax’s case. The service was originally billed as an alternative to some of the more illegitimate methods of downloading music. Why use BitTorrent or Limewire when you’ve got Qtrax, which offers free, and more importantly, legal music for your downloading pleasure? Well, unfortunately, the answer is never that simple. You see, regardless of the amount of hype you build for a product, you still have to deliver something to the masses in the end, and if that “thing” ends up being short of expectations, then you can expect a free-fall from the public’s good graces all the way into the 9th Circle of Hell, where you’ll spend the rest of your days chilling (pun intended) with Hitler and his pals.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Qtrax was not one of those products doomed from its conception (as opposed to, say, Microsoft Bob). At the very least it could have delivered a competent download service, something along the lines of Spiralfrog with a shinier UI. And despite the wishes of millions of users, I don’t think anyone actually expected Qtrax to distribute unrestricted MP3 files: WMADRM was a given. Nevertheless, Qtrax did have, in theory, a few advantages that seemed to edge it ahead of its competitors: 25 million tracks available for download, the backing of all four major music labels, and iPod support through an as-of-yet unseen workaround. Had Qtrax managed to slap these things into a half-decent package, it certainly would’ve been a competent player in the free music market, if not a game-changing or revolutionary one. The devil, however, is always in the details.

Qtrax botched the launch of its beta client badly. Remember those four major labels the company was bragging about? Surprise! EMI, SonyBMG, Universal, and Warner all apparently had no recollection of making any deals with Qtrax, which forced the company to retract its claims on launch day. That pretty much set the mood for the rest of the Qtrax launch. I have absolutely no clue how a company can botch up a detail like this so badly. It’s not like music-downloading was the core of Qtrax’s purpose or anything, right?

Honestly, though, you’d think the PR and marketing departments would at least have the decency to call the legal department and figure out what the deal was with the licensing before making spurious claims to the press. To make matters worse, the company claimed to have support of the labels as early as last June. I think it’s safe to assume at this point that the company jumped the gun; it clearly did not expect negotiations to drag on for another half-year, and when its executives realized they wouldn’t be able to make the release date, they decided to use the classic “It’s only a beta!” excuse and give us a half-assed Songbird rebrand with no music downloading. I don’t want to turn this into a rant, however, so let’s move on to my personal experience with the Qtrax client.

As stated above, the program is simply a rebranded version of Songbird 0.4, a music-player built on Mozilla’s XULRunner platform. The most obvious additions to the player are purely superficial: embedded ads at the top of the player window and a garish golden Qtrax logo in the titlebar. Despite Songbird still being in alpha-development, stability was no issue on my system; as I tested the various functions of the player, I experienced no crashes. I could browse my library, add music files, and use the built-in web-browser to go to various web pages.

Unfortunately, I ran into a major hiccup trying to actually play music. Instead of the standard media controls (play, pause, stop, etc.) in the top-left corner, I received a white box with some text telling me to “click here” to install a plugin. After spending the better part of three minutes sporadically clicking on the white box and tweaking various settings, including giving the program administrator privileges, I gave up and wrote it off as a beta bug. Additionally, the player seemed quite sluggish when navigating around the user interface, and the memory usage seemed disproportionately high.

Past that, though, I really don’t know what else to say. That’s all Qtrax could do at the moment, and by the time I had installed the program, the company had already disabled the CMS page which allowed you to browse for songs; I was simply redirected to Qtrax’s homepage. Even here Qtrax managed to frustrate me, as there was no notice about the redirect anywhere on Qtrax’s website; I was left puzzling over why the main attraction of Qtrax seemed to be missing from my program until a quick Google search clarified the situation.

Overall, Qtrax has been incredibly disappointing in every regard, and that’s just me being nice. As of now, the company is nothing more than a distribution partner for the Songbird client. Half of me (the paranoid half) thinks that this all a brilliant money making scam: what better way to cash in on ad-revenue than to create and hype a vaporware music service which a million people (according to Qtrax’s latest press release) will download in a short-span of time? And yet, the other half of me, the forever optimistic half which hasn’t been jaded and twisted by the horrors of the Internet, wants to believe that, at heart, Qtrax is a decent idea waiting for a better implementation.

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