A Cover Story

Please take a moment and take a good look at CoverSutra and Cover Stream, two full-blown, all-out iTunes controllers.

CoverSutra 2.1.2: Integrates a customizable album artwork display, a floating control window, a pop-up notification system for song/album changes, and a spotlight-esque search bar into one application.

Cover Stream 2.0: A CoverFlow browsing window makes it easy to find what you want to listen to. Has a quick search feature, a resizable album art display, and a notification pop-up for song changes.

You Can’t Judge an App by It’s Cover

On an initial superficial glance, these two iTunes controllers may look like long lost brothers, seperated at coding:

They both use HUDs¹, they both display album artwork on your desktop… even the preferences icons have similarities if you look close enough.

There’s a good explanation for this: CoverSutra and Cover Stream were primarily designed by the same person: Laurent Baumann, an undeniably talented graphic designer from France.

There’s a good story to this, really there is. Something we don’t often hear in Mac software articles is the story. How was this software created? Everything has a story. It’s only on rare occasions that someone asks just what it us.

The characters in this story are Cover Stream developer Fabian Kowalski and CoverSutra developer Sophia Teutschler, as well as Laurent Baumann. I contacted each of them for their insights, and, of course, for their story.

(In fact, my contact with Laurent inspired his personal blog post on this subject, which is very similar to what he corresponded to me. I will link to it later².)

An iTunes Controller Story

Back in the year 2004, long before either CoverSutra or Cover Stream existed in the flesh, Laurent Baumann was using the iTunes controller X-Tunes, which he was “a huge fan of”. “It was the first application to sport a ‘floater’³ with controls”, he remembers, “I had to remember a single hot-key to be able to be able to control every playback aspect.”

In 2005 Laurent started releasing icon sets and gained credibility in the design community. He says: “I felt the need to mockup ‘my dream controller’ (which I called AIR, standing for An iTunes Remote).”

Laurent describes himself as “a music lover and a big fan of artworks” so his dream application naturally “sported a black translucent controller, and the artwork of the song.”

“In October 2006”, he continues, “I took part in the beta testing of a new application called Coversutra. Unfortunately, Sophia [the developer] told us after two betas that she was dropping the development (mainly due to the arrival of iTunes 7, which intensively used artworks through CoverFlow and the new group list view)”.

Laurent pownced on the occasion to have someone actually develop his dream application, the one he had in his head from the get-go, and contacted Sophia with an updated mockup.

Apparently, she was impressed. In the coming months Laurent worked with Sophia until they released CoverSutra 1.0. “We kept working together, and while I was using it extensively, I really felt the need to be able to browse, or at least search for songs”, he says. So Laurent created a mockup that would eventually be lead to CoverSutra’s current search functionality.

In October of 2007, Laurent decided to quit working on CoverSutra. “I decided to quit working on CoverSutra because of unfortunate troubles me and Sophia were having”, he explains. “I couldn’t bear to use the application anymore, so I decided to sample other controllers. I installed and activated Synergy once more, the best alternative, in conjunction with SimpleScrobbler.”

Two months later, Laurent discovered Cover Stream 1.0. He enthusiastically describes his find this way, “It was like: Oh my goodness! Someone actually found a great solution to integrate my dream browser in a floater!”

According to Fabian Kowalski, Cover Stream started out as a personal project. And in his case necessity was the mother of invention. “It’s true there are a hundred different iTunes controllers out there”, he admits. “They all let you play, pause and skip music, some even let you search your music library for a particular song. The problem I had with all of them was that none of these controllers could be used to browse my music library, just search it.”

For this reason, Fabian found himself constantly listening to the same music over and over again, because it was the only music he could think to search for. “What I wanted wasn’t just a controller, but a controller and a search tool combined with a full-fledged browser, something that could replace iTunes altogether.”

He continues, “I always loved the original Cover Flow application by SteelSkies, but wasn’t very happy with the way Apple implemented it in iTunes.” Fabian describes Cover Flow in iTunes as ‘jerky’ and ‘sluggish’ and, for that reason, he says, he never really used it. “So I went looking for a way to extend Cover Flow to the desktop, and eventually came up with a working solution. I thought it was pretty cool and decided to make it public.”

Fabian is clearly still surprised with the response he received from the release Cover Stream 1.0. “The response I got was really quite overwhelming, despite the app’s rather simple user interface. I’m no graphic designer for sure, and didn’t even try to be when cobbling together the GUI over a cup of coffee.”

“Quite frankly”, he says, “all I wanted with the first release was to demonstrate the possibilities.”

Apparently, he did. After all, it caught Laurent Baumann’s eye.

Laurent realizes that Cover Stream 1.0 was not perfect: “Unfortunately, the application was lacking certain features, like desktop artwork, last.FM support, etc.” Nonetheless, Laurent kept an eye on Cover Stream. And finally, with the release of version 1.4 he decided to step in and offer Fabian a partnership.

“[Laurent] was still keen to finish what he started: making the best looking iTunes controller out there”, Fabian notes. “He had some really great ideas and so we decided to work together. We spent a month or two rethinking and redesigning my original project, exchanging ideas, me coding and he doing the graphics, and there you go: Cover Stream 2.0.”

The Difference

Now that we know the story, I’ll ask: What’s the real difference between these applications?

For one, the developer’s philosophies.

CoverSutra’s user interface looks great. There’s no doubt about that. It’s a wonderfully designed piece of software. One nifty thing it does is allow you change the look of your desktop album artwork to look like a Vinyl, a CD case, and a Jewel Case.

But how Fabian and Laurent approached this shows another philosophy. Laurent says, “We wanted to stick with ‘What Would Steve Jobs Do’ (WWSJD – an internal joke now).  For example, Apple doesn’t use Jewel-cases; in iTunes, Front Row or Apple TV, not even in the iTunes Store! I honestly thought, if Apple would have created an iTunes Controller, they would have used Cover Flow for browsing (Fabian also implemented an awesome search-as-you-type filter) and a Front-Row-like desktop artwork.”

“…We really want to stick with the Apple philosophy and style”, Laurent says, “this is what differentiates Cover Stream from CoverSutra”.

When asked what the main differences are between Cover Stream and CoverSutra, Sophia Teutschler, CoverSutra’s developer, added: “[Cover Stream] might be good for people who don’t want to see iTunes at all, where CoverSutra is an extension to iTunes by offering several aid ins that iTunes is lacking.”

I think that’s it in a nutshell.

Fabian Kowalski finally adds, “What I find most satisfactory about this release [Cover Stream 2.0] is that it is just the app I originally wanted. As a developer you usually make the app someone else wants. But this one I just did for me, and I guess that is what ultimately makes it appealing to others as well. It’s made with love, and I think it shows.”

Laurent Baumann has his final words too: “I definitely see Cover Stream as the genuine child of [the original] CoverFlow”, he says, “and I’m happy to have finally found and participate in, the development of my dream controller…”

Nicely put, Laurent.



¹ A HUD (or heads-up-display) is simply a floating back translucent window often seen in Mac applications (e.g. iPhoto’s Image Correction panel)

² Laurent Baumann’s (strikingly-similar-to-what-he-corresponded-to-me) blog post: http://lbaumann.com/index.php?id=483050c1cc951

³ A ‘floater’ is a window or control that is there when you need it rather than being a normal application window, at least I think it is…