Perhaps you heard the news, shed a tear of nostalgia, made an off-hand llama-whipping joke and moved on. Winamp deserves more than that. This is a legendary piece of software whose responsibility for the digital music revolution goes hand-in-hand with Napster. Illegal file sharing services merely provided the tunes. Winamp let us play them.
As AOL has been gracious enough to give us a month’s notice before yanking Winamp from its servers, it’s only appropriate to give the 16 year-old MP3 software another listen.
I was expecting much worse from the installation. It’s been years since I used Winamp, and my last impression was that AOL had turned the program into a bloated mess. I recall taking great pains to prevent Winamp from installing extra toolbars and trialware onto my computer.
To my surprise, installing Winamp 5.66 was painless. This is Winamp late into its retirement, no longer so hell-bent on making money through bloatware. The default installation settings are useful and minimally invasive, and the software started up quickly. It only took a minute to get my music library scanned and listed.
The music library, by the way, was a later addition to Winamp, a conceit to the way iTunes moved song selection out of our file browsers and directly into the software. It’s an obvious addition, but to me it was also a distraction from Winamp’s focus on the play queue. Even the fact that you can’t toggle the media library without digging into the menu bar suggests that it’s an afterthought. So let’s just get rid of it.
That’s better. The image above is basically Winamp as I used it from high school through college. Listening to Winamp was all about building up a righteous play queue that evolved over time. It was so easy to rearrange tracks on the fly, and I really miss that equalizer, especially for all those live shows I used to download.
Upon installation, I selected the classic Winamp skin for maximum nostalgia value. But any Winamp user knows it doesn’t end there. Downloading more skins was as much a part of the Winamp experience as downloading bootleg MP3s.
Later, some skin-makers got pretty eccentric…
…to the point that Winamp’s website has a section just for skins that are actually useful. Skinning Winamp was a perfect complement to the MP3 hoarding that was happening at the time. Your version of Winamp and the songs within amounted to a personal statement in digital form.
Now that I’ve got my hippie jambands all queued up, I’m ready to relax. Just need to set the mood.
I spent more time staring at these things than I care to admit. The concept lives on in other music players–you can even install WhiteCap, a personal favorite, in iTunes–but it’s not the same anymore. The visualization section of Winamp’s website reads like a time capsule; the most recent user comment on Tripex was logged 1,375 days ago. (Fun fact: Ryan Geiss, creator of the popular Geiss and Milkdrop visualizations, apparently works on Google Glass now.)
Nostalgia value aside, Winamp in its current form actually strikes me as a good piece of software. On the surface it’s lightweight and simple–certainly more so than the monstrosity that is iTunes for Windows–but you can customize it in meaningful ways. Still, there was a dark period where Winamp wasn’t this good, which is why I’d stopped installing it on every new computer I get.
Even if AOL hadn’t trashed Winamp over time, it’d probably still be in rough shape. As soon as iTunes landed on Windows, with an iPod invasion in tow, it was hard to convince people that Winamp was something they needed. Nothing beats a fully-integrated solution that plays music, sells music and synchronizes that music to the most popular portable MP3 player in the world. Winamp added some of these features over time, including a music store and an iPod sync tool, but it was never as seamless as iTunes was.
Besides, desktop MP3 software is not as valuable anymore. Today you can stream any song you want through Spotify, or take your pick of online radio services such as Pandora and Songza. You can put your entire collection on Google Play Music and listen through any web browser. All of these services also exist on smartphones and tablets, which themselves are overtaking laptops and desktops for leisurely things like listening to music.
AOL’s decision to kill Winamp might not be as terminal as it sounds. There’s a rumor of a sale to Microsoft, though it’s possible Microsoft is more interested in Winamp’s Shoutcast radio platform than the iconic MP3 software. There’s a petition for AOL make the software open-source, allowing development to continue. But as Winamp creator Justin Frankel noted on Reddit, making an open-source version available to normal users could be difficult because of patent issues. Still, if AOL’s servers do go dark, Winamp will likely remain available through BitTorrent and other unauthorized sources.
I’m actually pulling for that final outcome. For a program so deeply rooted in the seediness of the digital music revolution, piracy would be a fitting way to ensure Winamp lives forever.
But anyway, once more for old time’s sake: