I recently had a friend whom I invited to listen to my Do-it-yourself speaker system for PC. The first thing he said was not a compliment to my audio equipment, but rather a question about the software: “Are you still using Winamp?” A little taken aback, the best I could say was something along the lines of “Yeah, that’s amazing.”

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This exchange kept coming back to me later in the day. “What else could I use?” I asked.

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My interest in music developed decades ago but didn’t really take hold until I got my first computer just before the turn of the century. It was just at a time when CD burners and MP3 distribution devices were booming in popularity, so it’s no surprise that one of the first programs I downloaded was Winamp.

Developed by Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev under the Nullsoft banner in 1997, Winamp is a media player that supports a wide range of audio formats, including MP3, AAC, FLAC, WAV and WMA, among others. Early versions of the player – WinAMP stylized as suitcase “Windows” and “AMP” (short for the Advanced Multimedia Products MP3 playback engine it uses) offered rudimentary controls, but by the time version 1.006 was released just a few months later, its iconic GUI was really starting to take shape.

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Renamed “Winamp”, the program added conveniences such as a color-changing volume slider and a spectrum analyzer. Users also had access to an equalizer to change the frequency response and a playlist to help you organize your tracks. The GUI, reminiscent of an aftermarket stereo head unit, felt right, but the real fun lay in customizing the player’s appearance with skins and plugins.

Skins allow you to change the look and feel of the Winamp GUI. With the help of scripts, they also added functionality to the player. There was an entire community behind the Winamp mods and many quality Winamp skins, although I personally have always preferred the simple look and feel of Winamp Classic.

So far, the only plugin I’ve ever messed with was the render option. Specifically, Geiss for Winamp creates a light show that “allows you to fly through the sound waves of the music you’re listening to”. Try it somehow; it is very funny.

Winamp was an immediate hit with early adopters. By mid-1998, the program, which debuted as freeware but switched to a shareware model after launch, was downloaded. over 3 million once. This caught the attention of major media brands including AOL, which scooped up Nullsoft in June 1999 for $80 million in shares and continued to operate as a subsidiary.

Massive success soon followed. By June 2000, Winamp had 25 million registered users, and only a year later it surpassed the 60 million user mark. It was clear that MP3s were going to be the next big thing in music. And they were… for a while, anyway.

Buying Music

One of the major challenges the industry faced was how to monetize digital music. There was a complete lack of legal ways to buy MP3s, and the few that existed at the time were difficult to use, expensive, and limited. Many have gravitated towards file sharing platforms such as Napster as well as Kazaa to build their digital music collections, stolen or not. Winamp has often been the player of choice.

Realizing the void in the market, Apple CEO Steve Jobs tasked his team with building a portable music player, the iPod. The following year, he reached an agreement with major record labels to sell music through iTunes $0.99 per song. It was a much smaller income than what a full album would have made, but it ended up being a win-win for both parties.

Consumers liked the flexibility of manually selecting only the tracks they wanted, without having to spend hours searching for shady P2P sites infested with viruses. And purchases costing less than a dollar apiece quickly fell into the impulsive category.

Meanwhile, the record industry and artists have finally found a way to make money from digital music. It might not have been as profitable as it was in the good old days, but it was better than nothing.

However, nothing stays the same in the world of technology, and the music industry’s track-buying scheme is no exception. Over the next few years, as smartphones and wireless network technologies advance, on-demand music streaming services such as Spotify started to become a favourite. Seemingly the Holy Grail of music, today’s streaming services provide permanent access to over 40 million tracks for a small monthly fee.

Effects

As listening moves further and further away from traditional computers, the popularity of programs like Winamp is predictably declining.

In early 2014, AOL unloaded Winamp for the Belgian radio aggregator Radionomy. In October 2018, Radionomy CEO Alexander Sabunjan. promised that a new version of the program – Winamp 6 – will appear in 2019, but at the time of writing there was no such version. In fact, Radionomy no longer exists and has been renamed to broadcast.

The link on the Shoutcast website points to winamp.comwhere the leaked version of Winamp 5.8 is currently offered. Many purists, myself included, prefer the earlier versions of Winamp for their simplicity and lack of bells and whistles. Personally, I’m using v5.03a, released March 26, 2004. You can download it from TechSpot Downloads.

Update (July 2022): After four years of sleep, Winamp launched a new version 5.9 RC1 Build 9999 with Windows 11 support, improved audio streaming, and VP8 support. They say this is one of the many updates that will come after migrating the entire project from VS2008 to VS2019: “The groundwork is laid and now we can focus more on features.”

So why are you still using Winamp? Don’t get me wrong – streaming is great and I use it every day. But even with 40 million songs on the giveaway, there’s a significant gap between what I want to listen to and what’s available to stream at any given time.

Streaming rights are fluid, meaning what’s available today may not be tomorrow. To make matters worse, most of the obscure things I’m into are early content from the local music scene, recordings from local gigs, albums made by family and friends in bands, and even some great artists who never signed a record deal but released an album or two – not in streaming mode.

Even some of the world famous artists have not fully joined the streaming. For example, Garth Brooks stayed on streaming for many years before finally making a deal with Amazon in 2016. When I’m in the mood for something a little different that I can’t stream, I fire up Winamp and enjoy the good times.

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The history of software applications and companies that at some point became popular and widely used, but now disappeared. We cover the most important areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.