Winamp Says Goodbye

According to Slashdot, AOL has cut Nullsoft along with their other recent staff reductions. Betanews has the full story:

The last members of the original Winamp team have said goodbye to AOL and the door has all but shut on the Nullsoft era, BetaNews has learned.

Only a few employees remain to prop up the once-ubiquitous digital audio player with minor updates, but no further improvements to Winamp are expected.

Winamp's abandonment comes as no surprise to those close to the company who say the software has been on life support since the resignation of Nullsoft founder and Winamp creator Justin Frankel last January.

The marriage of Nullsoft and AOL was always one of discontent. After AOL acquired the small company in 1999 for around $100 million, the young team of Winamp developers was assimilated into a strict corporate culture that begged for rebellion. Although Nullsoft was initially given a long leash by AOL, It wasn't long until the two ideologies collided.

Frankel and his team were accustomed to simply brainstorming ideas over coffee and bringing them to the masses without approval. So when Frankel and fellow Nullsoft developer Tom Pepper devised a decentralized peer-to-peer file sharing system, dubbed Gnutella, parent AOL was left in the dark.

Gnutella was unveiled in March 2000, much to the chagrin of an unprepared AOL; executives feared the program would encourage copyright infringement and damage the company's pending merger with Time Warner. AOL quickly clamped down on Gnutella, but not before the software's source code leaked. Gnutella-based alternatives soon followed, igniting a peer-to-peer land grab that has yet to subside.

But AOL knew it had to protect its investment and turn a profit from the freely available Winamp. Frankel and crew found themselves in hot water numerous times, but always escaped with little more than a proverbial slap on the wrist.

However, growing displeasure reached a boiling point with Nullsoft’s unsanctioned release of WASTE -- an encrypted file-sharing network -- in June 2003. Frankel threatened to resign after AOL removed WASTE, but remained with the company long enough to finish Winamp 5.0.

Frankel's departure followed AOL layoffs and the closure of Nullsoft's San Francisco offices in December 2003.

With AOL struggling to stave off declining subscriber numbers and 700 additional layoffs planned for next month, the company’s focus has shifted away from supporting acquisitions such as Winamp.

Despite the somber farewell, Nullsoft's former masterminds are proud of their accomplishments. Winamp helped start a digital audio revolution and boasts an incredible 60 million users per month.

After a disappointing Winamp3, Nullsoft developers returned to the drawing board and completed long-standing goals with the release of Winamp 5.0 in late 2003.

Nullsoft's Shoutcast, which pioneered audio streaming over the Internet, is called "the Net's best secret" by its creator Tom Pepper and has reached 170,000 simultaneous users accounting for 70 million hours of listening each month.

For its part, AOL says it remains committed to Winamp, stating it is "a thriving product that AOL continues to support and will continue to support."

To me, this is very dissapointing news. Not so much in that I'll miss Winamp, personally, but to me, Winamp was what made the internet special. Back in 97, I was a young college student who was just getting into this fascinating place. I was a music nut but had little exposure to music outside of the radio. Napster, along with Winamp, made it possible for me to experience a score of new artists whom I later supported by buying their CDs. For reference, I've purchased probably 300+ CDs in these 7 years. That's about 40 CDs a year. In the past, I was known to go and purchase a new CD (or two) basically every week. To this day, I still manage to pick up a new disc at least every month, if not more often. This would never have happened without Napster, of course, but more imortantly, Winamp.

While Napster made it possible for the masses to "share" their libraries, Winamp made it possible to play them in an easy to use, virtually bug-free environment. Winamp, with it's goofy visualizations and easily customized playlists was my own personal jukebox. As well, the Nullsoft team pretty much started music streaming over the 'net with their ShoutCast technology. I can remember many a night spent at the Methodist student center, their beautiful cable modem tethering me to the 'net, listening to streams of Sesame Street songs or Dave Matthews Band concerts.

Perhaps Nullsoft's biggest idea was Gnutella, the P2P protocol and network they unveiled right after joining AOL. Needless to say, the suits weren't exactly happy, it was deleted almost immediately from their site. However, the source was leaked and Gnutella still powers most of the major P2P networks today, years after it's development. No one has done it better than Justin Frankel.

I stopped using Winamp in July, when I switched to my Mac. I'd actually tooled around with many mp3 players on my Windows box (Sonique and iTunes come to mind), but nothing matched the performance of Winamp (versions 2 and 5 specifically) on a PC. Nowadays I depend on iTunes to catalog all 30 gigs of my mp3s, but Winamp will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first, my best, my favorite.

AOL shall hold a special place in hell for what they've done of late. Certainly, I don't put full blame on them for anything. Winamp would have died, Netscape wasn't meant to be, but those are two of the greatest internet innovators that they basically ruined with their corporate wrangling. Thankfully, we still have Mozilla Firefox and iTunes, which remain free, to trump Microsoft. But I certainly hope AOL doesn't try to buy out any more companies. Thank goodness they're all but bankrupt.

Finally, The Register leaves us with some inspiring thoughts:

[...]"AOL's really whipped the Llama's ass on this one," wrote volunteer Mike Darrah in a posting to the Pho mailing list.

[...]"Please take a moment of your day to bow your head down in thanks to the efforts and innovation given to the entire digital music revolution by the Nullsoft crew through out the years," says Darrah. We will. Politics always ends in failure, it's said, but the Nullsoft team used the channels AOL allowed them (and sometimes didn't) to maintain an important community, and valued quality to the very end - for which we're grateful.

Begone, Llama's; we'll whip you no more.
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