Waving goodbye to Winamp, paying respects to Nullsoft

With media player Winamp headed to software heaven, Crave's Bonnie Burton, who once worked for the firm that made it, looks back on workplace tensions and fun -- and Mike the llama.

Tron Winamp skin
A "Tron" Winamp skin. Fans often often created skins for their favorite movies, TV shows, or bands. d4fmac/Deviant Art

If you downloaded a song in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you most likely did it with Winamp. This week, the world said goodbye to the legendary media player with plenty of nostalgia, but for me, Winamp's death means the end of a very personal era. Here are some of my memories of working at Nullsoft, the company that created it.

When I first started there in 2001, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. America Online had just bought the company, and Nullsoft employees weren't thrilled with the prospect of being told what to do by a large company with a lot of rules. Many of us were young and full of "piss off" energy.

Nullsoft's story started way before I arrived. In 1996, Winamp -- short for "Windows Amplifier" -- was created and released by computer programmer Justin Frankel. He went on to start his company Nullsoft (a parody of Microsoft's name) a year later.

Nullsoft's snarky attitude was obvious from the start with its mascot -- a llama named Mike who came with his own tagline: "Winamp, it really whips the llama's ass!" (a line inspired by the schizophrenic singer-songwriter Wesley Willis). The motto rang true, considering it kicked the asses of any other media play on the market.

Mariachi bands interrupted meetings. Staff wore inflatable Sumo wresting outfits for the hell of it. The ultimate video game area sat in the middle of the room. <br />

Fifteen million people downloaded Winamp in a little over a year after its release. It allowed users to not only easily play music on their computers complete with playlists, an equalizer, and Pink Floyd light-show-worthy visualizations, it also inspired fans to make their own player skins to share with others.

In 1999, AOL bought Nullsoft and everything changed. While working under AOL, Frankel (along with fellow computer programmer and Nullsoft co-founder Tom Pepper) released Gnutella, an open-source peer-to-peer file-sharing network that competed with Napster in both popularity and controversy, due to a very miffed AOL.

According to an archived Rolling Stone interview from 2004 with Frankel aptly entitled "The World's Most Dangerous Geek":

AOL ordered him to take the program down immediately, and the company put out a statement calling Gnutella an 'unauthorized freelance project.' But Gnutella, unlike Napster, couldn't be stopped. More than 10,000 people had downloaded the beta software that first day, and intrepid hackers had gone to work to reverse-engineer it and throw it into the hands of the open-source community, laying the foundation for BearShare, Morpheus, LimeWire, and other file-trading wares.

Gnutella was now impossible to shut down, and so was Frankel, though AOL tried to keep him on a short leash by forcing Frankel to get his blog posts preapproved. That backfired too. He uploaded an MP3 search engine for the masses, and AOL took it down within hours. Frankel uploaded a program called AIMazing, which replaced AOL's Instant Messenger banner ads with a musical heartbeat. AOL was not amused. Even The Wall Street Journal published a story in 2000 called "AOL's loose cannon: Justin Frankel."

Fan-made Winamp skins were as stylish and sleek as the subjects they paid tribute to. AOL Music

So when I was hired at Nullsoft in 2001, tensions were high between the Nullsoft staff and AOL upper management. I was hired to be the editor of Winamp.com to most likely make sure nothing went "wrong" with the site. The Nullsoft team -- who called themselves "legitimate nihilistic media terrorists as history will no doubt canonize us" -- were under a microscope. But Nullsoft didn't need a babysitter, it needed a cheerleader.

The group I worked with understood the concept of working hard and playing hard. Mariachi bands interrupted meetings. Staff wore inflatable Sumo wresting outfits for the hell of it. The ultimate video game area sat in the middle of the room. Everyone there was dedicated to creating the best version of Winamp possible.

Fans flocked to Winamp.com over the years not only to download the latest player and find their favorite fan-made player skins (often created to honor favorite TV shows such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or stylized to reflect love for bands like Nine Inch Nails) but also to connect with the Nullsoft creators themselves. Our forums thrived. The site featured news and personalities of our employees with themed months celebrating everything from ninjas to prom. We all wrote public blogs linked to the site. We had a voice. We had fun.

"I got hired to explain 'wasabi' to the world; that 'plugin' architectures needed to change into 'component' architectures; that 'skinning' meant something far more amazing than simply 'replacing bitmaps' on things; and a wonderful skins and development community 'flourished,'" former Nullsoft employee and self-proclaimed "Hot Green Mustard Evangelist" Mig Gerard wrote in his Nullsoft job description on LinkedIn.

Then came the announcement this week that AOL was finally pulling the plug on Winamp. Winamp's Web site posted this statement: "Winamp.com and associated Web services will no longer be available past December 20, 2013. Additionally, Winamp Media players will no longer be available for download. Please download the latest version before that date. See release notes for latest improvements to this last release. Thanks for supporting the Winamp community for over 15 years."

Nullsoft's founders, past employees, and fans gathered on Reddit to pay their respects to the company and the player it created.

"Just wanted to thank everyone for all the support over the years," Nullsoft co-founder Tom Pepper posted on Reddit. "While we haven't been involved with Nullsoft since the early 2000s it was incredible what you all did both for us, and for music. Our only goal was ever to make the tool we wanted to use, and it seemed to resonate with you all very clearly!"

And what is to become of the loyal Nullsoft mascot, Mike the Llama? Frankel reassured fans on Twitter this week that Mike always has a home.

RIP Winamp. You will be missed by many, including me. Long live the llama's ass.

Behold the Nullsoft mascot Mike the Llama.
Behold the Nullsoft mascot Mike the Llama. Credit: Justin Frankel

 

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