If you listened to MP3 back in the late 90s, there are good chances that you used Winamp to manage your playlist. We were huge Winamp fan boys and so very proud of our 128bit and 64bit MP3 collection back then. After being launched in 1997, the versatile media player quickly became a popular choice among the geeks and gamers. People who used to share digital music through various forums like Napster, Kazaa and Gnutella preferred the MP3 format and Winamp was the best media player for playing MP3 tracks. The software was praised for its modular design, small memory usage and speedy performance. You may get the picture by comparing Winamp with Chrome and Windows Media Player with Firefox or Opera. AOL bought the parenting company of the media player, Nullsoft in June 1999. However, earlier this week, AOL declared that they will shut down the development and web services of Winamp on the 20th December.
Problems after Acquisition
Problems started immediately after the acquisition. Since AOL bought Nullsoft, the advancement of Winamp became slower; the once-leading media player lost the innovative edge. Former employees always thought that the software deserves better position. Rob Lord, the first GM and the very first employee of the company, thinks Winamp could have been in the position of iTunes. He blames the mismanagement of AOL which started right after the acquisition. Another veteran, Justin Frankel thinks the situation will turn around. He blamed the internal politics of AOL for not yielding anything hopeful for the software. Frankel resigned in 2004 after having some never-disclosed issues with the parent company.
Despite all these mishaps, AOL continued updating Winamp. The first Android app was released in 2010, followed by the Mac version in 2011. Surprisingly, AOL still generated profits from the software. Though the company has declined to provide any official figure, former employees reckon the figure to be more than $6 million annually. It is estimated that the media player is being used by millions of users worldwide.
The Early Days
Like most businesses, Winamp was created in order to address a specific problem. While compressed music was gaining rapid popularity among the ordinary users, playing this music was very difficult. The German inventors of the MP3 format released the first encoder in 1994. Initially, it was pretty tough to share and find the MP3 music for ordinary users. At that time, Frankel wanted to develop a reliable, enjoyable way of listening MP3s.
Windows Advanced Multimedia Products (WinAMP) was released on April 21, 1997. Nullsoft, its parent company was formed the next year and the software became a shareware. Though we tend to think people do not pay for shareware, this was not the fact for Winamp. While all the features were available for everyone whether they paid or not, the media player easily generated more than $100,000 a month. People actually paid for subscriber options such as faster CD burning speeds!
While Winamp was not the first MP3 player, it was certainly the most user-friendly and most attractive at that time. The only other options for listening to MP3s were to use RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. None of these players were able to build playlists, provide custom skins or visualizations, while Winamp did all of these with efficient programming. This fact is still valid. While the Mac version of iTunes is 170MB, Winamp for Mac is only 4.2MB. However, since AOL acquired the company, the development and innovation slowed down.
The iPod Issue
Other than the acquisition, there was another major issue which played a vital role in the decline of Winamp. It was the iPod, which appeared by late 2001. During the inauguration of the product, Steve Jobs himself stated that all the other MP3 players ‘sucks’. More than a million iPods were sold by 2003. Subsequently, the iTunes Music Store was launched. Most of iPod’s initial customers were driven from Winamp’s user base. While iPod kept improving and providing new features, Winamp was confined within the political decision making process of AOL.
Winamp 5 was released on December 2003. Frankel resigned the following month. A senior technical manager of AOL, Ben London took his place. No new versions were released during the next three months. London also agreed that there were no long-term vision for the software. In 2007, the ten year anniversary version of Winamp was released. Currently, none of the original employees of Winamp are with AOL. All of them moved to music or tech companies elsewhere.
A report on TechCrunch revealed that AOL is trying to sell ShoutCast and Winamp to Microsoft. But the question is why Microsoft would want to add another media player when it already has a renowned one along with the latest Xbox. Analysts are considering ShoutCast as the deal sweetener here. The ShoutCast service portal includes more than 50,000 radio stations from all over the world. Microsoft could add this area into its Xbox platform, which currently lacks this option. Nonetheless, it does not matter whether Microsoft acquires it or not, it is clear that the golden days of Winamp are over. Looking back, Winamp isn’t dying this 20th December 2013, Winamp stopped whipping the llama’s ass when AOL acquired it.