This post is about Fire.fm and how it came to be. I no longer support it, unfortunately. Happy reading 😀
“What if you could play music using Firefox and nothing more?” That was the question that sparked the creation of Fire.fm.
Back in March 2008, my friend Jorge Villalobos spotted the announcement of the Extend Firefox 3 contest, sponsored by Mozilla to promote the launch of Firefox 3. This is usually an annual event, but at the time I personally had never heard of it. Me and Jorge, we both already had considerable experience in Firefox development, so he asked me if I were interested in participating together. I was definitely interested, yet we had no concrete ideas. Normally, the contest has two categories: best new add-on and best updated add-on; this time, however, they had opened two additional categories: best shopping add-on and best music add-on. We were both immediately drawn to the latter, since we both love music (well, who doesn’t?). We saw this as a great opportunity to develop something both useful and cool.
First we did our homework. A quick search for existing music related add-ons yielded almost nothing. FoxyTunes was the most popular music add-on at that time; it inserted a few buttons and controls in Firefox to let you control iTunes remotely. I remember I liked the idea of having the integrated playback controls in Firefox, but I didn’t like the dependency of having iTunes running in the background for it to work.
One of the contest sponsors, specifically of the music category, was Last.fm, an Internet radio station and music community website. At the time, I had never really used their site, but because of the contest and our research, I started using it a lot and ended up loving it. In Last.fm, you start by typing in the name of an artist you like; it then plays music from that artist and from similar artists you may or may not know of. This is a great way of discovering new music, but one grievance was that you had to have the Last.fm website opened all the while you were listening to the music. It all fell quickly into place: “What if we can do something like FoxyTunes, but using Last.fm instead of iTunes?”, we thought. The idea of listening to music without the need of anything other than Firefox was very exciting for us.
And so we began. But before we could though, we had to overcome two major potential showstoppers. First, we had to come up with a way of playing music; HTML5 was not coming to Firefox until a couple of years later, so Flash was our only alternative. Second, we had to find out if we could, somehow, mimic what the Last.fm in-site Flash player was doing, i.e. how it was requesting the music files from the Last.fm servers. In retrospective, this was, without a doubt, the most complex part of the whole implementation of the add-on; once we got those out of the way, the rest was pretty straightforward.
We put much emphasis in the design of the user interface, as we were convinced we wanted it to be as minimal and unobtrusive as possible. We also wanted to make sure it complied with accessibility standards and with each operating system’s look and feel. And we also wanted the interface to feel easy and intuitive to use.
After a month and a half of development (in our spare time!), and half a month of debugging, we submitted our add-on to the Extend Firefox 3 contest. We waited for the results anxiously, since we really felt our add-on was a serious contender. Finally, on August 21st, 2008, the winners were announced, and Fire.fm won the best music add-on category. As part of the competition prize, we flew to London and met with the nice folks at the Last.fm headquarters.
Initially a world-wide free service, Last.fm is now only free in the US, UK and Germany, and a paid subscription service everywhere else. This, unfortunately, might change even further in the near future. Fire.fm, as an add-on itself, is and always will be completely free; we only accept donations, which allow us to continue supporting it. We add new features from time to time, and we try to help out all users who have trouble with the add-on in a timely manner.
Fire.fm had seen almost a whopping 4 million downloads, and had an active user base of ~300,000 users during its peak.