June 27, 2003 4:00 AM PDT

AOL backtracks on Winamp media player

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America Online's celebrated Nullsoft division is taking a page out of Coca-Cola's playbook, reviving a "classic" version of its flagship Winamp MP3 player amid widespread criticism of the latest rendition of the software.

Nullsoft released Winamp3 last year, offering an ambitious reworking of its popular MP3 player based on a homegrown programming language called Wasabi. The upgrade aimed to convert the slim Winamp multimedia program into a full-fledged system capable of running Wasabi-based applications on its own. But the upgrade was dogged by complaints that it was slow and bloated, and it never took off with Winamp's core followers, many of whom reverted to older versions of the product.

In a setback to Nullsoft's plans, Winamp3 in March gave way to the earlier Winamp 2.x version, pending a broader overhaul that will incorporate aspects of both in Winamp 5. In the meantime, AOL has discontinued supporting plug-ins developed using Wasabi and will instead fold Winamp3 graphical interface designs, or "skins," into Winamp 2.x.

"Our development focus moving forward will be around the integration of the products into the enhanced future line," AOL spokeswoman Ann Burkart wrote in an interview over instant messenger.

AOL's plans to drop Winamp3 for an earlier, simpler version come amid signs of upheaval at Nullsoft, just as the notoriously rebellious AOL division is beginning to play a major role as a developer of in-house multimedia products for the online giant.

Digital media technology is increasingly seen as a strategic way to control content distribution over the Net, and America Online has begun to shift its reliance to Nullsoft technology as an alternative to third-party multimedia products provided by partner RealNetworks and long-time rival Microsoft.

At the same time, lingering tensions between Nullsoft and its corporate parent have been rocky, with Nullsoft co-founder Justin Frankel recently publishing comments on his personal Web site that indicated he was mulling leaving the company after repeated clashes with management over his programming projects. Frankel later moderated his tone and has posted hints that he may stay.

As AOL backtracks on Winamp3, some Nullsoft critics say the upgrade offers a cautionary tale of programming hubris, akin to efforts by Losing the rhythm Netscape Communications to rewrite its Web browser from the ground up in the late 1990s--a decision that led to long delays in Netscape's upgrade cycle that arguably handed Microsoft the momentum in the browser wars.

"It's exactly what happened to Netscape," said one Winamp developer who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "They had a great utility, and they turned it into a platform. But the user didn't get it."

Winamp at its height was one of the most popular downloads on the Web, but its popularity has faded amid growing competition from products from Microsoft, RealNetworks and others.

When AOL announced its intention to acquire Nullsoft in November 1999, more than 250,000 copies of Winamp were being downloaded a week through Download.com, a division of News.com parent CNET Networks. Download.com figures in 2003 show a dramatic decline, but that may be due to Winamp directing downloads to its own Web site.

In any case, Winamp now lags far behind other media players. According to measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings, Microsoft's Windows Media player had 43.1 million users in May 2003, while RealNetworks' RealOne media player reached 26 million. Apple Computer's QuickTime had 13.5 million users, and Winamp reached 5.5 million.

As Nullsoft struggles with the direction of Winamp, AOL is showing signs of cooperating more closely with Microsoft on digital media, having agreed a month ago to license the software giant's Windows Media software as part of a sweeping settlement of a private antitrust suit brought on behalf of its Netscape subsidiary.

Nullsoft's 800-pound gorilla
It's unclear exactly how the Winamp3 detour will affect the long-range prospects of the Winamp player and AOL's ability to use Nullsoft technology to compete in digital media, but it is unlikely to help.

Winamp3's holdup may have allowed its competitors to make greater inroads into the explosive growth of digital music. Microsoft and RealNetworks have tied their own media players more closely into their core assets, the Windows operating system and the RealOne subscription service.

The companies also have beefed up their players to offer many features once popularized by Winamp such as personalized interface skins, music libraries and CD playback. The mainstream appeal of Microsoft and RealNetworks players have sidelined Winamp into a more enthusiast crowd.


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"It was a one-trick pony, and the trick it did was really good," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research. "The problem was there were many horses that could do that trick."

That's not to say Winamp is devoid of its own distribution giant. Parent company AOL, which remains the largest Internet service in the world, has used Nullsoft to code its proprietary digital media player since 2001.

This summer, AOL plans to release the next version of its online service, currently dubbed AOL 9.0, that will include a new media player, code-named Llama, created by the Nullsoft team. Like previous versions, Llama will include support for playback files encoded in Microsoft and RealNetworks, with the new addition of Apple's QuickTime technology formats.

Unlike previous incarnations, AOL will push for companies to use Nullsoft audio and video formats, called NSA and NSV, respectively. Content providers that sign exclusive deals to stream their media on AOL will be required to use Nullsoft's formats.

Nullsoft developers also were the brains behind Ultravox, server software that streams multimedia. Ultravox has been incorporated into Radio@AOL's dial-up and broadband products and is central to AOL's move away from RealNetworks' streaming format.

Coding for the masses
Although the Winamp3 movement has been put on the back burner, it's by no means dead. Elements of Winamp3 and Wasabi will be combined with the faster, slimmer Winamp 2 for the next version of Winamp, called Winamp 5 (versions 2 plus 3), due out in late 2003. Wasabi code also is still being toyed with inside the halls of Nullsoft's San Francisco loft and will be found inside certain applications in Winamp 5, such as its skinning engine and its media library.

Meanwhile, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the team of young developers that started Nullsoft.

The central figure in this complexity is Frankel, the original developer of Winamp. In recent weeks, Frankel has caused a stir by publicly pondering a departure from AOL after the Internet giant pulled his latest software creation. Called Waste, the service was typical Frankel: simple, small and potentially controversial. Waste--a reference to the secret postal network in Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49"--lets people set up private networks of 50 people or less in which participants can swap computer files, instant message one another, and communicate in real time.

Shortly after AOL pulled Waste from Nullsoft's site, Frankel stirred up chatter by posting a notice on his Web site about his unhappiness and then threatened to leave. Frankel remains an AOL employee, but his future at the company is uncertain.

Wasabi developers have accepted this turn of events, though some reflect fondly on what Wasabi tried to accomplish.

Regis Nebor downloaded Wasabi in April 2001 while still a student in Rennes, France, and soon began developing music applications for the Winamp3 community. He created a CD burner that let people copy MP3s onto a disc. Then he used Wasabi to refine a new client developed by Nullsoft veterans called Muse.net, which lets people access their song collections remotely.

Now a part of the Muse.net team in Los Angeles, Nebor agrees that many people turned away from Winamp3 due to its slow load times and bloat. However, he still believes that the Wasabi code was special and that AOL may have pulled the plug on it too soon.

"By the time they stopped Winamp3, Wasabi was optimized and was really faster," Nebor said in an interview. "I think people decided to stop and didn't give enough time to the team."

 

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