Death Knell Sounds for Nullsoft, Winamp

The last members of the original Winamp team have said goodbye to AOL and the door has all but shut on the Nullsoft era, BetaNews has learned.

Only a few employees remain to prop up the once-ubiquitous digital audio player with minor updates, but no further improvements to Winamp are expected.

Winamp's abandonment comes as no surprise to those close to the company who say the software has been on life support since the resignation of Nullsoft founder and Winamp creator Justin Frankel last January.

The marriage of Nullsoft and AOL was always one of discontent. After AOL acquired the small company in 1999 for around $100 million, the young team of Winamp developers was assimilated into a strict corporate culture that begged for rebellion. Although Nullsoft was initially given a long leash by AOL, It wasn't long until the two ideologies collided.

Frankel and his team were accustomed to simply brainstorming ideas over coffee and bringing them to the masses without approval. So when Frankel and fellow Nullsoft developer Tom Pepper devised a decentralized peer-to-peer file sharing system, dubbed Gnutella, parent AOL was left in the dark.

Gnutella was unveiled in March 2000, much to the chagrin of an unprepared AOL; executives feared the program would encourage copyright infringement and damage the company's pending merger with Time Warner. AOL quickly clamped down on Gnutella, but not before the software's source code leaked. Gnutella-based alternatives soon followed, igniting a peer-to-peer land grab that has yet to subside.

But AOL knew it had to protect its investment and turn a profit from the freely available Winamp. Frankel and crew found themselves in hot water numerous times, but always escaped with little more than a proverbial slap on the wrist.

However, growing displeasure reached a boiling point with Nullsoft’s unsanctioned release of WASTE -- an encrypted file-sharing network -- in June 2003. Frankel threatened to resign after AOL removed WASTE, but remained with the company long enough to finish Winamp 5.0.

Frankel's departure followed AOL layoffs and the closure of Nullsoft's San Francisco offices in December 2003.

With AOL struggling to stave off declining subscriber numbers and 700 additional layoffs planned for next month, the company’s focus has shifted away from supporting acquisitions such as Winamp.

Despite the somber farewell, Nullsoft's former masterminds are proud of their accomplishments. Winamp helped start a digital audio revolution and boasts an incredible 60 million users per month.

After a disappointing Winamp3, Nullsoft developers returned to the drawing board and completed long-standing goals with the release of Winamp 5.0 in late 2003.

Nullsoft's Shoutcast, which pioneered audio streaming over the Internet, is called "the Net's best secret" by its creator Tom Pepper and has reached 170,000 simultaneous users accounting for 70 million hours of listening each month.

For its part, AOL says it remains committed to Winamp, stating it is "a thriving product that AOL continues to support and will continue to support."

But without those who poured their heart and soul into building the software, Winamp seems destined to meet a fate similar to fellow audio player Sonique, after Lycos saw the departure of its development team. Sonique has stagnated for years, and development ceased altogether last March.

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