The Making of Winamp

In the era before iTunes, Frankel created one of the first MP3 players. He says that Apple's product has "dumbed down" music sharing software.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Why did you develop Winamp?

Justin Frankel: Well, when I was in college, I guess that would have been 1996, or 1997, I found online some places where you could download music files that were pretty reasonable quality for how big they were—and this was something I played with before like in high school and never got really... never got that whole sort of CD quality sound out of a computer before.  But when I found these, it was pretty interesting, and so I started playing around with it. And one of my friends in college at the time started making a Mac MP3 player, and on Windows there were a couple pieces of software available, but they were kind of limited; they didn’t really a good experience when you were listening to music with them.  It was sort of very functional in that, "Hey, it’s playing it back," but there was very little of the sort environment that actually made listening to music on a computer different from listening to it somewhere else. 

So, things like you now, showing visualization, being able to seek randomly, being able to build play lists.  All of this sort of stuff that’s very commonplace in music-playing software now.  So, my friend started doing a Mac version of this software called  MacAmp, and I haven’t really done much programming for Windows and Windows 95 had been out and it was starting to be used by a lot of people, so I figured, "Hey, this would be a good way to learn how to program Windows application software."  And so I made Winamp.

Question:
What was it like going from being an unknown coder to a famous one?

Justin Frankel: Well it was pretty gradual.  There was an IRC channel that I was hanging out on and had friends on.  And these were people all over the world that would just hang out and talk about random things. I guess kind of how many online communities are now.  But, and so, you know, I posted early versions and people would play with them and go, "Hey, this is good.  And it should do this, it should do that."  And so this gradual thing of people starting to use it and giving feedback.  And as that happened, you get like, people get excited by it and they tell their friends and it grows in its own way that way. Which is very exciting, but it kind of happens over a long period of time, so as time goes on and each day isn’t really that much bigger than the previous.  So you really don’t notice it that much. 

Question:
What do you think of iTunes?

iTunes probably started out very similar to Winamp other than some obvious differences.  It was acquired from another company.  But I think since then, it’s probably been... it’s been designed, a.) by people who actually weren’t the programmers on it.  So, you’d have people making decisions who don't even know how those things are decided you have to be implemented, which is often a mistake.  And then also I think it’s been very dumbed down, like when working on Winamp, we always tried to make things straightforward enough so that someone who wasn’t very technical could use it and not be confused, but also exposed tons of power so that if someone wanted to just completely customize it to be exactly their own, and change the behavior to be what they expected, they could do that.  Whereas, iTunes is very much... you fit into the iTunes mold.  That’s just how it works.

Recorded on June 21, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman