No history of digital audio is complete without mentioning Winamp. Nullsoft’s iconic media player was by far the most popular during the so called “mp3 revolution” at the turn of the century, and achieved somewhat of a cult status amongst a whole generation of music-loving computer geeks. This was largely due to its ease of use, its customization ability and its strong plug-in architecture, which set trends still seen in today’s applications.
However, Winamp has seen its fair share of controversies. Versions that were supposed to have been updates often offered reduced functionality or included ad-ware, and users often chose to remain with technically outdated versions. Perhaps uniquely in application development history, Nullsoft often chose to listen to those concerns, and scrapped nearly two years worth of development to focus on updating the more popular older versions.
Winamp takes its name from the AMP mp3 decoding library, which was originally written for UNIX. Nullsoft had previously used the library in DOSAmp, which was a simple early mp3 player for DOS. For the purposes of this article, DOSAmp was installed in an MS-DOS VMWare session to take screenshots and check functionality. Of note is the fact that many modern mp3 files, which use the technically non-standard MPEG-2.5 format, refuse to play, so they had to be converted back to standard MPEG2 using the Lame encoder.
Contrary to popular belief, Winamp wasn’t the first Windows-based mp3 player – that honour goes to Fraunhofer’s Winplay3, released almost two years earlier in 1995. Winplay3 became largely popular due to piracy groups bundling it with CDs full of bootleg mp3s, which for a period could be found at any computer trade fair or car boot sale.
The very first version of winamp, version 0.2, was released in April 1997. At that point it was little more than a test of the AMP library’s ability to compile on windows – it actually had less features than DOSAmp did, and sported a completely standard windows user interface.
Version 0.92, released in May, was the first version that was recognisable as Winamp with its dark grey colour scheme and glowing green lights, but it still had a standard windows title and menu bar.
Version 1.0 completed the classic look by adding a full Winamp-styled title bar, and by this time it had gained a graphical EQ, a playlist editor, a seek bar, and a simple frequency analyzer.
The next major revisions of Winamp were versions 1.4 and 1.5, which added various user interface and usability improvements, as well as an oscilloscope to display a waveform of the currently playing track. In addition, HTTP streaming was added, paving the way for the imminent Internet Radio explosion. However, with version 1.5 Nullsoft changed the license from freeware to shareware, obliging users to pay for the software after 14 days of use.
Winamp 1.6 added a huge number of new features, not least of which was plug-in support. Initially only supporting visualization and DSP effect plug-ins, this was the start of Winamp’s legendary customization ability, and hundreds of plug-ins were developed within a very short space of time.
In January 1998, Nullsoft Inc became an official registered company, and was starting to make serious money for its developers through Winamp’s reputation as the most full-featured mp3 player available. Version 1.8 came out shortly afterwards, which continued the trend of customization by adding support for skinning the interface. Within weeks there were hundreds of garish Winamp skins flooding the Internet, and Nullsoft relaunched their website with a heavier emphasis on user-created content.
The winamp 1.9 branch introduced input plug-ins, allowing the program to be extended to support other formats besides mp3, initially just including a decoder for the then-popular .MOD format. By version 1.91 (released a week later) it had added support for MIDI files and wave files, as well as CD audio. This made Winamp the most flexible computer-based audio player of its time, and with over 3 million downloads by that point also the most popular. Another particularly notable feature of version 0.91 was the inclusion of the famous “Llama whipping intro”, which has featured in all versions of Winamp until its removal in Winamp 5 for apparently being too offensive.
It was around this time that Nullsoft was the subject of a lawsuit by Playmedia Systems, which had through a series of mergers had acquired the rights to the AMP library. Playmedia claimed unlawful use of the library, and as a result Nullsoft switched to the Nitrane decoder, which they had been developing in-house to be more efficient and to use the advanced instruction sets available on modern processors.
After three months of development, Winamp 2.0 was released on September 7th 1998. Far too many features were added to count in this version, but the most visible was a more uniform interface with fully skinned EQ and playlist.
Later updates to the 2.0 branch included the famous Advanced Visualization Studio (AVS) by default, which was until then a separate plug-in. Unlike many other Visualisation plug-ins, it allowed the user to create their own beat-synced animated graphics using a very simple graphical user interface, rather than having to program and compile their own plug-ins. It gave many people an introduction to the world of graphics programming, including the author of the famous Line Rider game.
Following the release of Winamp 2.23, Nullsoft was bought by the Internet giant AOL. This made the creators very rich men, particularly Justin Frankel who was given $60 million worth of AOL shares. Nevertheless, Frankel continued to lead the development of Winamp, and remained de-facto head of Nullsoft for another four years, until resigning to develop other projects.
Many of the by-then tens of millions of users were suspicious the acquisition by AOL, as Nullsoft was then (perhaps wrongly) perceived as being a small community-driven company. Winamp was made completely free as of version 2.5, but soon afterwards AOL insisted on bundling it’s Internet Access software along with the Winamp installer, much to the irritation of Winamp’s numerous anti-AOL users.
After a year and a half of alpha and beta releases, Winamp3 was released on August 7th 2002 to much fanfare. This version was a complete rewrite of the Winamp code-base, and added many new features – a media library, a much more advanced skinning engine, and a device called a “Thinger” which was a window containing a several large shortcuts to replace the tiny “Clutterbar” present in earlier versions. Interestingly, Winamp 3.0 is the only version to have ever been ported to Linux.
However, support for legacy plug-ins and skins, amongst other features, had been completely removed from Version 3. Users also found the program to be bloated and sluggish, and many reverted to Winamp 2 in protest. Nonetheless, Winamp3’s support for Nullsoft’s pioneering NSV format made it the player of choice for many early Internet Video channels.
Realising it was hemorrhaging users at an alarming rate, Nullsoft scrapped the Winamp3 code-base and instead concentrated its efforts on back-porting the few popular features back into Winamp 2. The 2.9 branch, released in March 2003, contained the Winamp3 media library and video support but retained add-on compatibility and did not suffer from the same performance and stability issues.
The merging of the Winamp 2 and 3 code-bases was complete with the release of Winamp 5 in December 2003. So-called because adding two and three together gives five, it was much better received than its predecessor. An entirely new interface based around Winamp3’s advanced skinning engine brought its appearance up to date, but support for the by-now-thousands of existing Winamp 2 skins was retained. Similarly, plug-ins from Winamp 2 could again be used, and this support for legacy features led to the majority of holdouts embracing Winamp 5 with much enthusiasm.
AVS had also had many enhancements, meaning users were now able to create some utterly stunning visualisation presets with very little effort. Support for personal media players, which were by that time soaring in popularity, was introduced soon after – and much to Apple’s annoyance, many iPod users chose to manage their devices with Winamp rather than iTunes.
To celebrate a decade of Winamp’s existence, Winamp 5.5 was called “the 10th anniversary edition” and released in October 2007. This added much better internationalisation support, meaning Winamp could finally become popular in the non-English-speaking world. This was also the first major version released without the involvement of Justin Frankel, but he is nonetheless credited in the program’s About section.
To this day, Winamp remains one of the most popular media players, and one of the most popular Windows applications generally. In October 2010, Winamp was ported to the Android mobile phone platform, and received glowing reviews in the press. The concurrently released Winamp 5.6 added sync support for this version, and the combination of the two has given Android media capabilities rivalling the iPhone/iTunes combination.
However, some old criticisms are starting to return. Winamp now contains arguably more bundled ad-ware than ever, it has crippled encoding and CD burning support – only fixable by purchasing the constantly-advertised “Winamp Pro” – and the application itself uses far more memory and disk space than ever before. As a result, many people are considering more lightweight alternatives such as foobar2000 and VLC media player, and Winamp is slowly but surely losing its devoted fan-base.
With the spiritual leader of Winamp – Justin Frankel – now long gone, it seems unlikely that Nullsoft will again have the bravery and good sense to listen to its users and cut back its well-loved media player to the basics. Whether or not Winamp can gain a new fan-base of users through its world-class mobile device integration remains to be seen.