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Nullsoft's future in a void

Recent departure of a Nullsoft founder raises questions about the future of the Winamp media player.

Another chapter has ended in the long and often tumultuous lifespan of America Online's Nullsoft division, the team responsible for creating the popular Winamp media player.

Over the past year, the team has witnessed the departure of its most influential developers, including Justin Frankel, who created Winamp and sold it to AOL in 1999 for an estimated $100 million. Other core developers such as Tom Pepper, Francis Gastellu and Christophe Thibault soon followed. Now, another key Nullsoft member, Steve Gedikian, has left the company to join Apple Computer.

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What's new:
The recent departure of a Nullsoft founder raises questions about the future of the Winamp media player.

Bottom line:
Music and video have become business cornerstones for tech companies, and some now see AOL's stewardship of Winamp as a missed opportunity.

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Gedikian's recent departure has once again raised questions about the future of Winamp, a pioneering media player that has drawn a loyal following but has remained underutilized by AOL over the past few years.

Music and video have become business cornerstones for technology companies--refueling Apple Computer's profits, for example--and some now see AOL's stewardship of Winamp as a missed opportunity, particularly as the company struggles with declining subscriber numbers.

"The idea there's no one actively developing it is definitely a head-scratcher," said a former Winamp developer who requested anonymity.

Winamp is considered one of AOL's least cultivated properties. Like Netscape, which AOL acquired in 1999, Winamp commanded solid market share during its height, but was eventually neglected as bigger competitors such as Microsoft and RealNetworks introduced their own software.


Steve Gedikian,
founding member
of Nullsoft

AOL spokeswoman Ann Burkart said in an e-mail statement that the company is "committed to Winamp," and cited its "healthy" 5 million unique users per month and the sale of 60,000 premium versions of the player.

Gedikian represented the last in a group of developers known for creating cutting-edge media software that appealed to younger, hipper users. But the team has often caused a fair share of panic among the executive brass at AOL and its Time Warner parent company for its vanguard projects.

"The idea there's no one actively developing it is definitely a head-scratcher."
--former Winamp developer

In a lengthy and personal Web log entry last month, Gedikian bid a fond farewell to his days as a lead developer for Winamp.

While the entry was largely sentimental and thankful for his supporters, Gedikian noted AOL's change in attitude toward the team and the product over the past couple of years.

"Those of us remaining have become quite weary of the many 'compromises' we are asked to make in order to keep moving forward," Gedikian, who has joined Apple, wrote in his blog. "At this point, I feel like I no longer have the power to make any positive impact on Winamp."

Since the acquisition, the Nullsoft team operated with considerable autonomy from its loft offices in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood. The group became a software engineering lab that developed technology for AOL's digital entertainment ambitions, including a streaming media enhancer called Ultravox and streaming audio and video formats called NSA and NSV, respectively.

Meanwhile, Nullsoft maintained development on Winamp while working on the media player found in AOL's proprietary online service. Winamp developers overhauled the product and released Winamp3 in 2002 with a new programming language called "Wasabi." The Nullsoft team hoped engineers would develop custom media applications using Wasabi, but the effort was dogged by criticism that it was too bloated.


Last year--in an attempt to regain Winamp's notoriety for being a sleek, edgy product without the frills of other media players--the team released an updated Winamp 5.0 that more closely resembled the original incarnation.

While the team received support from AOL's top brass, including Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis, internal tensions began stripping Nullsoft of its personality.

Frankel, who created Winamp as a project when he was 20 years old, increasingly became a liability after creating controversial software products that created panic among executives. His most famous creation, Gnutella, was quickly pulled in 2000 because it allowed users to swap digital music files during the height of Napster's copyright fight with the record industry. AOL shut down Gnutella, but not before many engineers downloaded it and created their own file-swapping services.

Frankel ruffled more feathers when one of his projects allowed people to replace banner ads on AOL's popular instant messaging service with sound wave patterns. Then, in 2003, Frankel released "Waste," which let groups of users set up their own private peer-to-peer file swappers.

AOL swiftly pulled both products after their release, fomenting discontent on Frankel's part. He resigned from AOL in January.

"It was a pretty big love-hate relationship for me," Frankel wrote in an instant message interview at the time. "The love ultimately comes down to working with your friends on interesting things that you've poured a lot of time into. The hate is dealing with the process and the pitfalls of corporate America."