This year marks the 15th birthday of Winamp. During that time it went from being a must-have piece of software to languishing in complete obscurity. But where did it all go wrong?
Prior to Winamp, there wasn’t much available beyond Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. But none of those players could, in the mid-1990s, do something as basic as playlists, much less visualizations and custom skins, nor were they as tightly and efficiently programmed as Winamp. Even today, the Mac version of the Winamp installer is only 4.2MB; by comparison, the iTunes Mac installer comes in at a whopping 170MB.
The Windows Advanced Multimedia Products (WinAMP) player was released to the world on April 21, 1997. The next year, when its parent company Nullsoft formally incorporated, Winamp became $US10 shareware. But no one pays for shareware, right? Wrong.
“Nothing ever was broken [if you didn’t pay], there was no feature that was unlocked,” Rob Lord told Ars. “In that year before we were acquired, we were bringing in $US100,000 a month from $US10 checks-paper checks in the mail!”
In fact, Winamp proved to be a huge success, and in many ways was the piece of software that naturalized the use of MP3s, by making it easy to rip, store and manage them, all from one piece of software. So successful was it, in fact, that eventually AOL acquired the company in June 1999 for somewhere in the region of $US80-$100 million.
What followed, however, isn’t a pretty story. Through horrendous mismanagement, AOL throttled the creativity of the Winamp team:
“There’s no reason that Winamp couldn’t be in the position that iTunes is in today if not for a few layers of mismanagement by AOL that started immediately upon acquisition,” Rob Lord, the first general manager of Winamp, and its first-ever hire, told Ars.
Justin Frankel, Winamp’s primary developer, seems to concur in an interview he gave to BetaNews. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) “I’m always hoping that they will come around and realise that they’re killing [Winamp] and find a better way, but AOL always seems too bogged down with all of their internal politics to get anything done,” he said.
Later, of course, came iTunes, at a time when Winamp was already beginning to struggle, to further compound the problem. Over time, Winamp’s success dwindled, and its development staff left. Nowadays, Winamp still exists — it just has an incredibly small, stagnated user base.
Image by uzi978 under Creative Commons license