Winamp: 15yr Slide from Media Player Dominance to Obscurity

Winamp: 15yr Slide from Media Player Dominance to Obscurity

The formerly must-have media player software quietly celebrates its 15th anniversary with a new mobile version of Winamp for Android while users reflect on how AOL mismanagement squandered its potential.

Winamp recently passed the 15-year mark, and since most people, Winamp included, seem unwilling to celebrate the milestone with even just a few words, it seems important to reflect back on just how much of an impact the once-dominant media player had.

Winamp (Winamp (Windows Audio MPEG Player) was first released back on June 7th, 1997 as a renamed version 1.006 of WinAMP, and featured a basic look with spectrum analyzer, color changing volume slider, but no waveform display.

The Winamp Modern Skin we all recognize today was released in 2006 with Winamp 5.

What’s curious though, is how the media player that used to be one of the few must-have pieces of installed software is now mired in obscurity.  When it was first released, Winamp, with its dazzling equalizer, playlist features, and cool visualizations, beat every other MP3 player out there.

Soon after releasing Winamp, Justin Frankel, Winamp’s developer and later creator of the Gnutella file-sharing network, also launched a Shoutcast plug-in for Winamp that allowed anybody to be an Internet DJ and stream their own audio online.

By 1999 AOL took notice and scooped up the company for a cool $100 million, and that’s where the apparent mismanagement and slow decline of the once-dominant MP3 player began (Ars Technica, the first to mark Winamp’s 15th year, says tongue-in-cheek that AOL “blunted its llama-whipping,” the “llama whipping,” of course referring to the Winamp’s famous initial startup greeting: “Winamp, it really whips the llama’s ass”).

“Winamp would have a larger US audience today were it not the fact that AOL tried to get people to install Netscape or AOL or something else when they installed Winamp,” former Winamp employee Fred McIntyre told Ars.

AOL kept trying to convert Winamp’s userbase toward  what employees dubbed the “Service,” but most Winamp users, myself included, were typified by what Frankel said he told AOL when they insisted that an AOL icon appear on a user’s desktop during a Winamp installation: “They think AOL sucks!”

What really hurt Winamp, McIntyre adds, is that “Between 2002 and 2007, Winamp was an asset that AOL knew was valuable but didn’t know what the fuck to do with.”

Some say it could’ve become the Pandora, Spotify, or of our time. The userbase was there (15 million in 1999, 60 million in 2001, and a peak of 90 million in 2007), and  the features were there (shoutcast, playlists, visualizations).

Now Winamp is just another media player in a sea of hefty alternatives like iTunes, VLC Media Player, BSPlayer, Media Monkey, and others.

In the meantime, Winamp quietly celebrated its 15th-year anniversary by releasing a new mobile version for Android – Winamp for Android 1.3.

What media player do you use for playing music these days? Are you a former or current Winamp user? Let us know in the comments section below.

Stay tuned.

[email protected] | @jaredmoya