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WinAMP's long, strange journey may lead to Redmond

After years of AOL bungling, the product is sent to the junkyard. But Microsoft may offer a lifeline.

Only a few apps on my modern PC date back to the 1990s in regards to my own personal use, but WinAMP is one of them. One of the earliest MP3 players, WinAMP was made by a small company called Nullsoft that knew how to use the Internet to stay close to the community it fostered.

In 1999, the company was snapped up by AOL for whatever reasons, and AOL proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it. This is really no surprise, as it was the height of Dot Com mania and stupid money was being thrown all over the place, with companies grossly overpaying for companies that they had no business buying in the first place.

WinAMP was out there as an MP3 player before Steve Jobs even dreamed up the iPod. It should have been a leader. Its ShoutCast Internet radio streaming service predates iTunes Radio by a decade. But AOL didn't know what to do with the company and wouldn't let the WinAMP management have the room to run that they needed. It became one of those acquisitions that killed the acquired company, much like Cisco buying Flip.

WinAMP and ShoutCast have grown despite AOL's neglect; Wikipedia says that as of 2011, ShoutCast had a peak of 900,000 concurrent listeners and 45,000 stations, although citation was missing. Then again, those numbers probably came from Nullsoft. That's usually how it goes with Wikipedia edits.

The result was a cult app that limped along, ignored by too many and surpassed by iTunes, which has a fraction of the functionality but is a resource hog of the worst order. Now AOL is putting WinAMP out of its misery. Last week, it announced WinAMP would be shut down in December. Merry Christmas.

But now comes good news via TechCrunch. Microsoft is in talks to pick up WinAMP from AOL and rescue it from the tech graveyard.

Now, Microsoft's track record when it comes to music isn't exactly ideal, but at least Microsoft has tried. Zune was a failure but it wasn't a bad idea, and some of its better parts live on in the Windows Phone music app. Microsoft is investing heavily in Xbox Live as a media center, and it could use a competitor to Pandora or iHeartRadio.

WinAMP would give Microsoft a nice streaming audio service and a whole lot of customers, something companies always value. And in this case, Microsoft would be viewed as a savior of the product, so I doubt many people would shun it, unlike if Microsoft had acquired the firm in 1999 instead of AOL.

A spokesperson from Microsoft declined to comment on rumor and speculation, which is to be expected.

If Microsoft doesn't save it, WinAMP supporters are hoping AOL will turn the player over to the open source world. A petition has begun begging AOL to open source all of the WinAMP/ShoutCast code. It would then be turned over to an open source project, like on SourceForge.net or other open source project hosts. Either fate, open source or Microsoft would be vastly better than taking a fine piece of software with a significant user base and just throwing it out.

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