What the guy gave us was a list of 10 songs and a promise of a hundred bucks. We knew he was good for it, this being an oil-rich country with no shortage of disposable income. Still, even we understood that a hundred dollars was highway robbery, a criminal sum of money to pay for what was essentially a mix tape. But if he didn't care, we didn't care. My friend and I took the list and drove down to the Electric Roundabout, a neighbourhood where virtually all of Qatar's computer stores sat huddled in the sprawling lobby of a dilapidated hotel. We bought a spool of empty CDs and went home to start downloading some music.
It was the mid-nineties, I was in high-school and Qatar had just gotten its first dial-up Internet connections and its first batch of semi-reliable CD burners. Sensing a business opportunity, my friend and I took advantage of these twin technologies, and began selling custom music CDs to anyone who couldn't be bothered to do the work themselves.
It was a slow, frustrating slog. We hunted down pirated MP3s on various password-protected FTP sites, almost all of which were run by paranoid, fascist administrators. We sorted through dozens of dud files with names like “Biggie_I'LL_BE-MISS_YOU_480K(Best_Quality).mp3.exe.” Every song took days to download on the sputtering dial-up connection, thanks to a rapidly overheating modem. Eventually, we shut the whole enterprise down. The money just wasn't worth it.
My teenage foray into the music business, such as it was, happened 15 years ago. Virtually all the hardware and software I used during that time is now horribly obsolete. All but one.
This is a requiem for Winamp, the best MP3-player ever made.
This week, AOL, which owns Winamp, announced that the media-player software will be permanently shut down as of December 20. After that point, it will no longer be available for download, and all support for existing versions will come to an end.
Anyone who listened to music on a computer between 1997 and, let's be generous and say 2005, will be familiar with Winamp. Before iTunes, YouTube and Internet radio, the purpose-built software was the best and most intuitive way to play digital music. At a time when users still had to contend with the Sisyphean buffering of RealPlayer, Winamp worked wonders.
What Winamp belongs to is the technology world's rarest and most tragic breed: products that were ahead of their time. With few exceptions, all these inventions, despite their designers' foresight and their myriad merits, are cursed with tumultuous lives and premature deaths. Some burn out in fire of controversy (Napster); some die slow deaths waiting for consumers to come to their senses (the Palm Pre); some reach the highest heights of popularity before something flashier comes along, and they are relegated to a muddling, pointless existence (ICQ, which, presumably because of its popularity with Russian users, is still around today). Only very rarely does a technology launched ahead of its time hang on long enough for that time to come, and for the technology to thrive (Skype).
But there's an added tragedy to Winamp. Unlike most pieces of software or hardware mentioned above, today's Winamp is still, arguably, among the best products of its kind. The innovations that made it so popular a decade and a half ago – customization, ease of use, the good sense not to suffocate your processor with bloated, unnecessary code – are fairly timeless. Long before Gamer Bros were shelling out thousands of dollars on obnoxious, neon-lined Alienware PCs, anybody could customize their Winamp media player simply by downloading one of the thousands of (mostly awful) “skins” available freely online – to say nothing of those crazy “visualizers” that served little useful purpose but were incredibly cool to look at, especially when high. Long before “smart” playlists and elaborate song recommendation algorithms, the Winamp playlist did exactly what it was supposed to do – it let you create a playlist. No recommendations, no proprietary file types, just a playlist.
Over the years, Winamp too succumbed somewhat to feature creep, as new updates started to come with a few frivolous tools and settings (although the core software still performed admirably). As with programs such as Winzip, the people responsible for Winamp seemed to have a hard time improving on a program that already did one thing very well. Still, that's not what killed Winamp. Mostly, iTunes killed Winamp.
The most popular media-player software in the world is, in my opinion, a bloated monster. Hardly anything on my computer inspires more dread than the iTunes update prompt, for it signifies, without fail, that I'm about to download many megabytes of inexplicable design changes, CPU-hogging subroutines and a license agreement crafted by the executor of Satan's estate.
Still, I use it. Mostly because, a long time ago, I bought an iPod, and then another one, and by the time I got around to buying a non-Apple media-player, so many of my painstakingly crafted playlists were locked inside iTunes (there exists software to export such information, but it is a pain to use). Slowly, I stopped using Winamp, purely out of lethargy – and I suspect heavy users of Apple's many other iTunes features, such as the music and app stores, did the same thing much more quickly. Winamp is a far better media player than iTunes ever will be, but it succumbed to the same phenomenon that wiped out so many of Apple's competitors – economies of ecosystem.
(It also didn't help that, at the turn of the millennium, Winamp was bought by AOL, the hulking paragon of Internet-era mismanagement. Quickly, tell me what AOL does. Did your mind immediately turn to the sound of the “You've got mail!” guy? It did, didn't it?).
There is of course another, more universal kind of sadness associated with the looming death of Winamp – that of the slow but certain demise of the Web's first generation of superstars. The Geocities, Alta Vistas and Microsoft Comic Chats of the world, all of them now long dead or in a state of permanent geriatric decline. And the few that still function, the Hotmails and Yahoos, have been subjected to such invasive and dramatic surgery over the years as to be largely unrelated to what they were a decade or two ago.
None of this is particularly unexpected, however. And in a sense, having a favourite Web site or app is, over time, not that much different than having a favourite athlete. A decade or two from now, someone's going to write this article again, this time about Facebook or Instagram. So it goes.
But independent of all that, the death of Winamp is a shame. It was a great piece of software, the first really good MP3-player, and probably a first-ballot Web Software Hall of Famer. Not a bad life, not a bad life at all.