Twenty-five years ago, Winamp was the future. Now that’s a distant memory. What happened?
Winamp (Windows Advanced Multimedia Products) was released on April 21, 1997, when listening to music on computers was a new concept and most people didn’t know what “MP3” meant. Winamp wasn’t the first PC music player, but it made creating a playlist easy: drag files into the playlist window and start listening. This, combined with early file sharing networks like Napster, changed the way people discovered and listened to music. Winamp rode that wave, growing to 90 million users, only to become irrelevant.
Editor’s note: We originally published this article in 2018. We are republishing it in honor of Winamp’s 25th anniversary on April 21, 2022. The first version of Winamp (version 0.20a) was released on April 21, 1997.
Hardly anyone uses Winamp these days. Where did he go? And could you use it today, if you wanted to? Let’s dig deeper and see what we can find.
What happened to Winamp?
Winamp was lightweight, customizable, and made listening to music easier than any previous player. He quickly became a success, even though he only had a team of four behind him. Part of the appeal came from the community: an ecosystem of plugins and skins allowed designers and developers to customize things in surprising ways, and music enthusiasts loved having that kind of control.
The end of our story begins with a purchase, like many other technology stories of the 90s. In June 1999, AOL acquired Nullsoft (the company behind Winamp) for $80 million. That’s a good payout for a team of four, but AOL never really knew what to do with what they bought. Winamp’s website pageviews generated a big chunk of ad revenue, sure, and thousands of people paid $10 for the Pro version of the software, but that was about it for revenue.
Meanwhile, AOL was still making ridiculous amounts of money from its infamous isolated dial-up service. This huge revenue stream made it difficult to prioritize other projects, even those for which AOL paid millions. Eventually, AOL decided that software like Winamp was a promotional opportunity for dial-up service, and soon the installation of Winamp meant the decline of AOL’s “free” subscription offerings.
This was a huge inconvenience for Winamp users. Here is Cyrus Farivar, writing for Ars Technica in a very good article on the decline of Winamp:
[Winamp’s] the main users were music fans, geeks, and people who were worried about the bitrate their MP3s were encoded in; in other words, the main users of Winamp in the early 2000s were allergic to AOL as a company.
Combining AOL’s software and offerings with Winamp made the software cheaper in the eyes of users. Then something new appeared.
In 2001, Apple released the iPod, and it took off in a big way. In 2003 iTunes for PC was released and it was the beginning of the end for Winamp. Everyone who bought an iPod switched to iTunes to listen to music, because iTunes was more or less necessary to load an iPod with music, and many people bought iPods.
Even if you didn’t have an iPod, iTunes was appealing. It could identify and rip your CDs with just a few clicks. The search was virtually instantaneous. And while Winamp’s interface was a bit cluttered, iTunes’ interface (at least at the time) was clean and easy to use. Winamp consisted of several windows; iTunes only had one. Winamp offered thousands of fan-made themes and plugins; iTunes wasn’t really customizable at all.
Many geeks preferred Winamp, but iTunes attracted a much larger audience who just wanted to rip a bunch of CDs and listen to them. Winamp tried to combat this by offering unofficial support for transferring music to an iPod, but that wasn’t enough. Apple took the music player market and ran with it (and then spent 15 years turning iTunes into the cluttered mess we all hate today).
Winamp’s user base dwindled, and in 2013 AOL decided to shut it down completely. This plan changed at the last second when Nullsoft was sold to Radionomy. Since then, the Winamp website has said that a new version is “coming soon”, but five years later we haven’t seen anything. There are occasional developer rumors about new construction, but nothing substantial so far.
Can you use it today?
So you might be wondering: can you install and use Winamp right now? The answer: something like that. The WinAMP website, unchanged for five years, points to a thread when requesting a download. This thread points to a glib website where you can find Winamp 5.666 for Windows. This software is from 2013, but it works.
I installed Winamp on a modern Windows 10 machine and quickly noticed a problem: nothing here scales correctly on high-DPI displays. You can fix this in any modern skin by adjusting the scaling settings, like this:
If you are using a classic skin, you can use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + D to double the size of the main window.
Winamp used to offer a large repertoire of skins and plugins, but died in 2013. Luckily Winamp Legacy offers quite a large collection, so check it out if you want to try something you don’t like. remember old times.
I don’t think Winamp has aged well. But it works, and it’s at least worth turning on for the nostalgia factor. Sure, there are some bugs and the UI looks pixelated on modern screens after scaling. But it’s Winamp, and it’s worth something. Try it and reminisce about the early 2000s. Who knows? Maybe even use it full time.