In many respects, AOL’s recent decision to shutdown its WinAmp service reflects the final conclusion of a magical time when the rebellious energy of geek wizardry and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants tech entrepreneurialism mixes with big corporate perogatives and technology evolution. In many ways, the mixture is volatile, mercurial, sublime, and, at some levels, doomed to disappoint. The Winamp/AOL saga definitely embodies this all too familiar life cycle. Originally released in the age of Napster and a Wild West atmosphere of online media, Winamp was the premier media player in its day.
However, the big drama and comedy behind this comedy took place in the seeming hide-and-seek game played by its founder Justin Frankel and the company that acquired Winamp’s parent, Nullsoft, for $400 million, AOL. The acquisition just highlights that in many cases, you really can’t acquire genius. It’s like trying to bottle lightning-you can try and you might succeed at some level, still, you should get ready for some unforeseen events or unpredictability. Shortly after Winamp’s acquisition, word hit the digital streets that Frankel was actually working on software called Gnutella which solved many of the single server problems of file sharing services like Napster. Gnutella ushered in the peer to peer age of file sharing and this opened the way to different ways to share files but also communicate. Young Mr. Frankel was on to something. Well, just like a peeved parent, AOL tried to shut down Gnutella in the bud by labeling it as an unauthorized freelance project. Thankfully, AOL didn’t move fast enough to prevent coders from all over the world to making Gnutella open source. You might recognize its many flavors: Bearshare, Limewire, and many others. Also, Gnutella was the fount of peer to peer technology which influences everything from video chat to large file download sites to even crypto currency technologies.
Winamp’s passing is a great testimony to how quickly AOL’s fortunes have eroded over the years and how it tried to incorporate genius that ended up changing the world. In a recent Reddit post about the software’s passing, it is clear that almost all of its early players have moved on since the early 2000s but you can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia for those crazy heady Web 1.0 days. Considering how precarious the global markets, and tech markets in particular, lately, we might just be in for another wave of nostalgia ten years from now as we look back to today’s markets prior to another possible Big Crash.