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Why the tech community is mourning Winamp's death
AOL just pulled the plug on the venerable MP3 player
End of an era.
End of an era. (Facebook.com/Winamp)
T

he news dropped on Wednesday: After 16 years, the pioneering desktop MP3 player Winamp will be put out to pasture on Dec. 20. In a world dominated by iTunes, "the first reaction to Winamp's closure might be surprise that it still exists in the first place," says Tom Gara at The Wall Street Journal. But it does, in the shadows, as it has since AOL acquired it in 1999 with its $80 million purchase of Nullsoft.

The AOL subsidiary has even continued tending to its venerable MP3 player, releasing updates and versions for Mac OSX and Android. Winamp made its announcement as it released its latest — and last — update to its Windows software. This and other versions will still work after Dec. 20, AOL said, but "Winamp.com and associated web services will no longer be available" and "Winamp Media players will no longer be available for download."

Winamp became a ubiquitous piece of software when Napster exploded into the music world in the late 1990s. Once you downloaded your newfangled .mp3 files, Winamp was the software you organized them with and played them on. Across the tech blogs, the overriding sentiment was nostalgia over "the end of an era."

Justin Frankel, one of the developers behind Winamp, described its origins in 2011 (hat-tip to Mashable):

The proper obituary for Winamp is probably Ars Technica's lengthy June 2012 examination of "how the greatest MP3 player undid itself." The general consensus among Winamp's founders and early employees is that AOL essentially killed the player a long time ago.

"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," Winamp's first hire, former general manager Rob Lord, tells Ars Technica.

When AOL bought Winamp and music-streaming service Spinner, adds Fred McIntyre, who worked for both enterprises, "the thesis at that time was that AOL could be really big in music, create within its four walls the next MTV — and that meant something in music in the 90s." But when AOL threw the two companies together, putting Spinner in charge, the lack of guidance and resulting culture clash handicapped both. "Between 2002 and 2007, Winamp was an asset that AOL knew was valuable but didn't know what the fuck to do with," McIntyre told Ars Technica.

AOL made matters worse by insisting that both entities be subservient to AOL's email-and-internet-portal service — not popular with Winamp's base of music fans. Apple's iPod and iTunes were the final straw.

And this may be the biggest surprise from Winamp's demise: Not only is it still alive and kicking — and reportedly making about $6 million a year for AOL — but there will be plenty of mourners at its funeral. "Winamp still has an estimated user base of millions worldwide, a small fraction of which live in the United States," says Ars Technica's Cyrus Farivar.

One of Winamp's American fans is Slate's crime editor, Justin Peters. "I use Winamp every day," he writes, and not "out of nostalgia or inertia — I actually like it much, much better than iTunes." Unlike Apple's music behemoth, Winamp is "resource-efficient, it's customizable.... and it doesn't make me feel like it's always trying to get my credit card number." Peters isn't immune to nostalgia, though:

The shutdown of Winamp says a lot about the tech world's vicious utilitarianism and its readiness to mock or eliminate applications and services that have fallen out of wide use. It's the same mindset that led Yahoo to take Geocities offline in 2009. Yes, Geocities was garish and largely abandoned. But it was still a vital part of online history, a remnant of the clumsy, idiosyncratic internet that predated today's streamlined, circumscribed web. And while it's not a perfect analogue, Winamp is a part of Internet history, too. It was the first MP3 player for millions of people, and that means something. But not to AOL, I guess. [Slate]

If you're feeling nostalgic, too, here's the idiosyncratic message Winamp used to play when you first installed the app:

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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