Tim Bornholdt

Winamp's Woes: How the Greatest MP3 Player Undid Itself

MP3s are so natural to the Internet now that it’s almost hard to imagine a time before high-quality compressed music. But there was such a time—and even after "MP3" entered the mainstream, organizing, ripping, and playing back one's music collection remained a clunky and frustrating experience.

Enter Winamp, the skin-able, customizable MP3 player that "really whips the llama's ass." In the late 1990s, every music geek had a copy; llama-whipping had gone global, and the big-money acquisition offers quickly followed. AOL famously acquired the company in June 1999 for $80-$100 million—and Winamp almost immediately lost its innovative edge.

Winamp's 15-year anniversary is now upon us, with little fanfare. It’s almost as if the Internet has forgotten about the upstart with the odd slogan that looked at one time like it would be the company to revolutionize digital music. It certainly had the opportunity.

Who among us didn't use WinAMP before we all had iPods? I remember carefully editing my ID3 tags, crafting playlists for my Cybiko and, of course, building my own skins. [1. I vividly remember building two of my own for things which I enjoyed at the time: one was for 93X, the other was for Trish Stratus. I guess that puts me right at around the year 2000.] This is a must-read article by Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica for three reasons. First, it's a happy tale of a entrepreneur building something for themselves, really sweating the details to make it perfect and becoming a huge success for it. Second, it's a sad tale of how Nullsoft's decline correlated with that of AOL. [2. I never knew that the guy behind WinAMP was also the guy behind Gnutella. But on second thought, that really just makes sense, doesn't it?.] Third, and most importantly, the story ends with a reminder of just how powerful the international markets can be. Any developer building something that's intended for the mass market needs to be building support for other languages and cultures into their apps.