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WinAmp, another software failure?

From the about box:

"Presenting Winamp3

More than 3 years in the making, Winamp3 is the culmination of Nullsoft's attempt to create a whole new type of software: the ultimately skinnable program, also known as the highly metamorphic application. We rewrote everything from scratch while doing our very best to preserve and enhance those subtle qualities of Winamp that make you (and us) love it so much. While doing that we even managed to create a software platform known as Wasabi."

I read: "More than 3 years we have focused on trivialities instead of usability. Winamp was useless before, so we threw it away and started all over. Even threw out the carefully created map of pitfalls that took us years to compile. See how smart we are? We even created something noone really needed in the first place."

Try using WinAmp, and you will notice how you can't do anything without at least 3 years of study into the mind set of the creators.

I use it to play cd's on occasion. It does not recognise the same cd's the old release does recognise. It does not allow me to check again, in case the database was updated.

Although it may be a great feat of technical achievement, it is impossible to operate. Menu's pop up everywhere expect where you'd expect them. They also tend to pop up on places you can't reach. I have a multi-monitor setup (Matrox G450 display adaptor). If I have Winamp on the righthand monitor, menu's don't appear at all, until you inspect the lefthand monitor, that is.

So why rant on this forum, you ask? Well, sort of as a warning to enforce the arguments that Joel and others have made a million times. If you want examples of how not to proceed, check out Winamp and their 'start from scratch' attitude.

I feel better now :-)

Erik van Linstee
Thursday, August 15, 2002

For the record, I agree with Joel and others on the point of complete rewrites; however as I see it, there is a few major differences between Joels example of the Netscape case and this.

1) Competition. Netscape had IE to compete with during their rewrite effort. Winamp has what competition really?

2) Nullsoft as opposed to Netscape kept Winamp 2.x alive for the duration of the development process of version 3. The latest 2.x version on their site was released roughly four months earlier than the now rewritten 3.x. I take it a complete rewrite of Winamp took more than four months.

Some companies are in the position of pulling complete rewrites off. Among them is Microsoft, and obviously even Nullsoft. Netscape was not.

Patrik
Thursday, August 15, 2002

Err, except he never seems to say bad things about it - more use it to kind of validate a point, no? Like, "xxx... and (implied) thus it is so popular", rather than "in spite of xxx, its still popular". It must frustrate ui people, because it is clearly crud for usability, but wildly popular. Kind of makes you wonder what percent of usability is science and what is personal opinion and made up stats. Has it ever been proven that good UI translates into profit, numerically I mean? Not that I don't agree with the notion, just I wonder if its all that true in the end. A lot of it seems to be based on an example of a failure and an example of a success, which of course can mean anything...

Here are some quotes even - gotta love google.

"And there's another category of choice that people like: the ability to change the visual look of things, without really changing the behavior. Everybody loves WinAmp skins;..."

"While it is true that Microsoft used its operating system to help push its browser, it is also true that they just wouldn't have gotten away with this if their browser wasn't great. (Case in point: even though Windows out of the box can play MP3 files, everyone I know uses WinAmp, not the Windows Media Player, to listen to them."

"The programmers over at Nullsoft, creators of WinAmp, managed somehow to avoid the programmer-think that has imprisoned the rest of us for a decade. WinAmp has a great feature. When you start to drag the window near the edge of the screen, coming within a few pixels, it automatically snaps to the edge of the screen perfectly. "

So why doesn't usability count in their market?

Robin

Robin Debreuil
Thursday, August 15, 2002

"Nullsoft as opposed to Netscape kept Winamp 2.x alive for the duration of the development process of version 3. The latest 2.x version on their site was released roughly four months earlier than the now rewritten 3.x. I take it a complete rewrite of Winamp took more than four months."

Although keeping the old version alive is one of the smart things they have done, it does not outweigh the fact that version 3 offers nothing new.

You could already create skins. Maybe it has become easier or even more extensive, that only helps the people who are interested in skins in the first place.

But it does not improve basic functionality one bit.
Besides, imo, breaking existing features is far worse than any new feature can correct.

- Why does it not recognise my cd's anymore, when it used too?
- Why does it not use the skins I carefully collected over the past years. Well, I didn't, but I am sure many have.
- Why do I have to set the proxy again, when it was already set correctly in the old version?
- Why do menu's jump all over the place when they used to work just fine. They used to be organised by some standard that does not make sense to me, but at least they worked.

Now, for some of these issues there me be technically valid reasons, but I don't care. Technology is supposed to fix my problems, not introduce new ones. I am sure, if they had put their minds to it, they could have avoided this AND have all the improvements they so value.
Because I am sure they are valuable to someone, even if they're not so to me.

And why is winamp so popular? Who knows, ever heard of the dancing bear? Does it really dance that well?

Erik van Linstee
Thursday, August 15, 2002

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
1) Competition. Netscape had IE to compete with during their rewrite effort. Winamp has what competition really?

------------------------------------------------------------------ Patrik


Erm....  Windows Media Player?

Winamp does manage a number of advantages of Microsofts offering:

- You can download it in 5 minutes.

- It loads up in less than a second

- It doesn't eat up half the system resources

- It works on NT

- You don't have to sell you privacy just to fix its bugs.  ( http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/archive/25956.html )

Ged Byrne
Thursday, August 15, 2002

> Erm.... Windows Media Player?

Yes technically. But you yourself pointed out a bunch of good reasons to stay with Winamp, even during a rewrite. These reasons, you pointed out among others is why I still think that people will stay with Winamp.

Patrik
Thursday, August 15, 2002

>Although keeping the old version alive is one of the smart >things they have done, it does not outweigh the fact that >version 3 offers nothing new.

I guess Mr. Frankel was bored then, and has probably already made himself a nice heap of money. People are not always rational :-)

The point I was trying to make is that it is not always the road to failure to do a rewrite. Another thing, my gut feeling tells me (I dont have stats to back this up), but it sure seems that the Winamp user base has a higher geek percentage (myself included)  than most other products, say browsers or Word processors, and that means that "normal" UI rules may not be as important.

The same is true in Linux. Look at the different window-managers; You will see cool but totally rulebreaking stuff, like semi-transparent windows and such. The Linux userbase does not seem to care much about this either.

The very fact that there is skin-support in Winamp tells me that normal UI-creation rules does not really apply. Skins is, I think, the very definition of inconcistent UIs.

I will not be holding my breath while waiting for the day when MS announces skin-support in say, Office.

just my 2 cents,

Patrik
Thursday, August 15, 2002

Patrick,

Quite agree.  The whole media player business is an entirely different thing.

For a start it is a liesure, not a productivity tool.  Most GUI stuff that written is discussing a productivity tool that people use day in day out as part of their job.

A media player is a liesure tool, like a game.  Qhen did Tomb Raider or Quake start to resemble Office?

As with music, people want their media player to reflect their personal taste - which is why skinning is so important.

The other thing is that the Winamp UI follows a well established metaphor - The controls of a Hi Fi.

Ged Byrne
Thursday, August 15, 2002

Maybe that is the reason, you don't actually use WinAmp - you just hit play and flip to your business. "Using" (as in app, not server) Linux as well, I think most people only claim to use linux desktops, I don't know anyone that actually does (take a look, sure, change the to kde, maybe, but after playing a few rounds of SameGame, its back the other windows machine for most).

Maybe we prefer quirky interfaces to programs that run in the background and only need occasional input, screen savers being the extreme example...?

Robin Debreuil
Thursday, August 15, 2002

While there are some usability and continuity issues winamp3 needs to overcome, I think what they've done with skinning is an intriguing step, and I'm glad to see it.

Now that function is divorced from location, there is a real possibility of someone developing a highly usable interface to the thing (even though I've used winamp for years, the UI's layout never seemed to get to that point where manipulating it was 'automatic').  I'm not holding my breath, of course, as the tendency of skinners seems to be toward the cool rather than the intuitable or the easy to use, but I have my hopes.  :)

van pelt
Thursday, August 15, 2002

>Maybe that is the reason, you don't actually use WinAmp
>- you just hit play and flip to your business.

But of course. Thanks for pointing my behaviour out to me, this is a very valid point :-)

1) Hit "Shuffle"
2) Hit "Play"
3) Fire up development environment.

Thats about it.

Patrik
Thursday, August 15, 2002

"The point I was trying to make is that it is not always the road to failure to do a rewrite. Another thing, my gut feeling tells me (I dont have stats to back this up), but it sure seems that the Winamp user base has a higher geek percentage (myself included) than most other products, say browsers or Word processors, and that means that "normal" UI rules may not be as important."

A rewrite is indeed not always the road to failure. But if you don't fix elementary problems, you're in for another rewrite.

I disagree normal UI rules are not as important. I am not saying placement or looks of controls are the problem, but availability of basic features.

Having a skinable product is nice for entertainment products. It might be nice for other products as well. But you don't get usability by simply resuffling controls. Its having the right controls in the first place.
- Want to play a cd? You have to have play controls.
- Want to have track information? You have to have the right controls.

It all boils down to clearly knowing what tasks your user might want to accomplish with your tool, and then providing the right controls. And make sure you organise them such that they are easy to find.

Winamp provides loads of controls - controls that some might wish to use and others might not - but it does nothing to make them easy to find and use. Besides, they're incomplete, if you consider the cddb example.

True, some of the controls you can reorganise with the skins to make them more easy to find, but those are only the operational controls. Now try finding or understanding the myriads of controls on the preferences pages.

I am sure you expert users, you know, from that geek percentage, understand them fine, but you are hardly representative for the vast amount of casual computer users.

I happen to be geeky enough to be able to understand and use an application like Winamp, but it depresses me nonetheless. Why not make any application easy enough to use by dopes like me. It will be that much easier to use for the geeks as well. And who doesn't get satisfaction from something that can use without having to think about it, I ask you?

Erik van Linstee
Thursday, August 15, 2002

">Maybe that is the reason, you don't actually use WinAmp
>- you just hit play and flip to your business.

But of course. Thanks for pointing my behaviour out to me, this is a very valid point :-)

1) Hit "Shuffle"
2) Hit "Play"
3) Fire up development environment.

Thats about it."

So why have skins at all then? And all those other features? Why doesn't everyone use those barebone freeware players that let you do just that and nothing else?

Erik van Linstee
Thursday, August 15, 2002

I think the Hi Fi metaphor extends to this.

Next time your in the shop, take a look a the dazzling array of Hi Fi equipment.

Look at all those flashing lights, graphic equalizers and buttons galore.

Nobody uses them (except hardcore music fanatics - but they buy separates anyway).

Its all there to look dazzling, sexy, technical, complicated.

99% of the users just use 5 or so buttons.

I think the same goes for Win Amp. 

Ged Byrne
Thursday, August 15, 2002

OK the developers can't sit back and enjoy their creation yet. WinAmp 3 is a resource hog, especially when you switch on alpha support. For some skins my processor goes up to 90%.

But wow. What a terrific piece of software WinAmp 3 has become. I just browsed through some of the new skins and it feels like walking through a virtual museum full of beautiful interactive pieces of art. And to top it off, WinAmp 3 even plays my songs and video's.

There's no doubt that WinAmp's cult status will increase to astronomical heights.

Jan Derk
Thursday, August 15, 2002

>So why have skins at all then? And all those other
> features? Why doesn't everyone use those barebone
> freeware players that let you do just that and nothing
> else?

Because of the "nothing else". I for one does not use skins in WinAmp, then again I dont mind the feature being there. The vast selection of options, I dont fiddle with them either, again, I dont mind them. As long as all the bizarre controls which I dont need stay out of my way stashed away in options dialogs Im all happy.

If one day, I decide I have an urgent need to fiddle with some options, I will be unhappy with my bare-bones player which have none.

I agree with Ged here, this can be applied to hifi equipment or home cinema or stuff of that nature. I might not use all the cool stuff day 1, but knowing its included, I will be able to when I want to.

Patrik
Thursday, August 15, 2002

"So why have skins at all then? And all those other features? Why doesn't everyone use those barebone freeware players that let you do just that and nothing else? "

Because they are fun - the point isn't that you need them, you want them, and you can afford to indulge because you spend more time looking at it than using it. (I know that's our point, but mine too!).

I don't agree that it is the expert users who are ok with skins and bad UI, from my experience people who know nothing about computers get the weirdest skins, its almost like a game or secret club maybe, knowing where the play button is. The default UI on wmp looks like your parents trying to show you they can be cool - no wonder winamp is popular.

I think they may have killed their golden goose though - everyone would probably agree that a big reason winamp became popular is the skins. Everyone complained that the skins were not very flexible, bitmap only - yet other apps were way more skinnable and failed. Why? Imo, because you could make a good winamp skin without leaving photoshop. Now they've commited the same mistake as netscape - xml, stylesheets, scripting, C++, timers, objects, events, linked assets... So very flexible in the right hands. But the question is, who's hands do you want making your skins, the photoshop guru, or the xml evangalizer?

Not only that, but for netscape anyway (and it looks like this too), all the layers make it so complex and fragile that even programmers have to be very familiar with interactions with xul, css, events from hell etc. And it is still to rigid to even allow you to do simple things like turn off the text on your back button. And, wtf did they make their own scripting language for!!?? Why not ecma javascript or something known, proven, and free? "Important to note - user made classes do not support methods". Well, it may be ugly, but its theirs...

I bet there is a reduction in number and quality of skins (and thus users) with all this. Time will tell I guess.

Robin

Robin Debreuil
Thursday, August 15, 2002

>Why not make any application easy enough to use by
>dopes like me. It will be that much easier to use for the
>geeks as well.

Yes. But geeks sometime takes pride in obscureness and hard-to-figure-out interfaces. Im not saying its right or wrong here, Im just saying that is the way it is.

>And who doesn't get satisfaction from something that can
>use without having to think about it, I ask you?

I for one get that. Not that it happened that often, but I once deployed a software, that was used by 50+ or so users (not alot I know). But it was a joy seeing them be able to use it. That software was business-related and had a standard GUI.

There are basically only two types of applications;

1) Must use at work

2) Enjoy to use at home

Could it be that people have less demands on the GUI quality of programs they like to use, simply because they let people have fun in ways "must use"-software does not? People may want to finish their "musts" quickly and painlessly, wheras with the "enjoys" they care less?


Another 2 cents,

Patrik
Thursday, August 15, 2002

I wonder if this increased power will scare away skin writers.  Maybe there is a mode where you still just make bitmaps, and it looks like the old Winamp 2 skins?

More importantly, it seems that users get more sophisticated over time.  They learn, and your application becomes more difficult as you please current users.  Winamp started out very simple, and is growing organically.  I think this kind of complexity is successful, when it grows from something simple.  Winamp will be interesting to watch.

anon
Thursday, August 15, 2002

After this discussion, I decided to upgrade from Winamp 2.8 to Winamp 3.

Winamp 3 forgot all my old settings. It cannot see my old skins. Its UI is frustrating because it is non-native so all the window controls are in non-standard locations and look and behave differently that just about every other Windows app. And from what I can tell, it does not have any killer must-have features.

This sounds like another case of programmers on the loose without any program management or business requirements..

Zwarm Monkey
Thursday, August 15, 2002

Erik, I think you're missing the point of Winamp.  It's supposed to be a piece of fluff, a piece of eye candy that sits on your desk and plays some tunes and looks good doing it.  And it's very successful on this count.

I seriously doubt that they threw away *all* code.  "We re-wrote it from scratch" is almost always just bravado on the parts of developers. I'm guessing that the re-write they speak of refers primarily to the front-end skin engine. 

Winamp 3's big change?  You can do "freeform" (non-square) skins.  This required completely changing how skins are specified, and meant that your old skins would no longer work.

The bottom line is that WinAmp has long since reached the point where all the useful features that should be in an audio player have been implemented.  They've already started adding features of marginal usefulness, like the minibrowser.  What else should they add, a mail client?

Their decision was to "make it look cooler".  That's their prerogative.  As consumers (if you can be a consumer of free software), it's our choice to use it or not. No-one's holding a gun to your head and telling you to download version 3. 

Darren
Thursday, August 15, 2002

WinAmp 3 has many nice features. But combined with the bad onces just introduced it becomes a BAD product.

First let me clear about that why MS Media Player is not better than WinAmp for MP3s. Well it is just a Movie Player. That's right, the part of the screen where the movie is played there could be run a visualisation but the Movie app feeling is still there. You do not get any control over the playlist, or at least not that much as WinAmp and so on.

And that is the very same reason why WinAmp is NOT a good movie player. In fact this is my first qritique about WinAmp. It now tries to be a movie player and now my MPGs, AVIs etc. are WinAmp assotiated and it does an awful job playing them.

Second fail: the skins. Yep they are flexible now but not that flexible. I am just not impressed. And what they allow now is totaly cool and unusable interfaces. I downloaded all of the skins from the site (they are few) and tied them. One of them for example lacked the progress bar showing the song's position. It become impossible to position elsewhere.

Third serious fail: CPU usage. Moving a skinned form is not smooth even on my 1.3 MHz CPU & GeForce 2 video card. It takes too much % of the processor (up to 30% some times). When scrolling or using a large MP3s list it is in times slower than the old version.

Fourth fail: Many, many bugs. Several occured to me in just a few days.

Fifth fail: much of the old things are gone :(, To find a song I used Ctrl+F, now you have to go to the Media Library. And so on and so on...

Boris Yankov
Thursday, August 15, 2002

But I just noticed - if it is selected, no matter where your mouse it, the wheel controls the volume. How cool is that? What they really should have done is detected the hoover over the taskbar icon, and scrolled the volume there as well. I'll never look for the volume button on a skin from hell again - now I can really use some weird shit!

Robin

Robin Debreuil
Thursday, August 15, 2002

"Erik, I think you're missing the point of Winamp. It's supposed to be a piece of fluff, a piece of eye candy that sits on your desk and plays some tunes and looks good doing it. And it's very successful on this count."

Oh I think I got the point. But you see, looking good is not the crime I accuse them of. It's the primary functionality that bothered me, playing the tunes. And the overall quality of the user experience.

I used it simply to play some tunes, sometimes mp3's, sometimes cd. And to some extent it did that fairly well. Sometimes, though it would hang after pausing playback. That gets on your nerve no matter how good it looks.

The following still stands I think:
1. If WinAmp2 can find my cd on CDDB, so should WinAmp3.
2. If I upgrade WinAmp it is reasonable to expect that is keeps all the settings it can. Having to set the proxy again may be simple, but totally unnecessary. Especially if this is at least one setting it can also borrow from the system.
3. If skins made WinAmp succesful, breaking the countless skins already available is not a good move.

I just wonder if you spend so much time on making something look good, why not spend some extra time on making it easy to use as well. Easy to use includes the upgrade process too by the way, which is what annoyed me most in the first place. True, a one time experience, but also the first experience with the new product. And not a good one, making you wonder what else is not entirely trustworthy. So even if the new product is perfect, the seed of doubt is planted when it could have easily been avoided.

Erik van Linstee
Friday, August 16, 2002

ERhm...not to point out the obviousm but if you're content using WinAMP 2.x, if it does all you need and want, why bother with 3.x? It's sort of like M$ Office - how many, really, REALLY, needs more functionality than can be found in say, Office 97?

As for why people use WinAMp instead of something completely bareboned, well I believe it's a matter of simple psychology - everyone has heard about it ans thus they use it.

Lennart Fridén
Friday, August 16, 2002

I went back to 2.x, but I tried 3.x because 2.x hangs most of the time when I press the pause button during cd playback.
I was hoping that was fixed in 3.x

Erik van Linstee
Friday, August 16, 2002

I havent upgraded Winamp in years.  It plays my mp3's just fine.  "If it aint broke......."

Bella
Friday, August 16, 2002

>But I just noticed - if it is selected, no matter where your mouse it, the wheel controls the volume. How cool is that?

Version 2 does that too.  It's not cool.  It's the only application where the wheel mouse can move a control that is nowhere near the mouse.  I can't tell you how many times I accidentally muted the playback, when what I wanted to do was scroll through the playlist.  You have to be too concerned with which part of the window has the focus.

Brian
Friday, August 16, 2002

Bella, you are totally right.
Just see what happened to ACDSee. The 2nd version was very good. The 3rd had many not that good features but many nice new ones. The 4th was a total garbage which start time was comparable to that of a Photoshop.

Boris Yankov
Friday, August 16, 2002

Why have an interface at all when you're not using the product? Things like this, which almost always just run in the background, seem to lend themselves to the daemon concept superbly. If you had a service which played mp3 tracks from an internally stored list, and it just listened for generic TCP/IP type commands on a port, say in an XML format, whatever, you could have a very efficient player, which would never use lots of resources, and that you could have any interface you liked - anything capable of sending the right commands - web page, compiled app, anything you like. An mp3 player isn't something where you need a constant user interface - it's background componentry - why don't we see it as such?

Andrew Cherry
Friday, August 16, 2002

Andrew: Try www.zicht.nl/lanjukebox for something like you described.

Frederik Slijkerman
Saturday, August 17, 2002

Frederik - yeah this is something like what I was saying - I already knew such things exist, my point is that they're a more sensible approach to the "problem" of music playback than something like winamp - lanjukebox's only problem is that it requires a distributed architecture - something like that which scales from 0-x is the way forward i feel...

Andrew Cherry
Saturday, August 17, 2002

Why do you think the distributed architecture is a problem? Because it is slightly more difficult to set up?

Frederik Slijkerman
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Well - partly because it's overkill to set up - also in a way because thinking about the specific setup implied - i'm not sure it feels right... How many servers have sound cards? Who has overall control access rights?

This in't really relevant to the original, but I guess i'd say that it looks like a cool product in some ways, but it's overkill for single users (obviously - it's not designed for them).

I'm getting the impression that you're connected with the product...? Am I right? ;)

Andrew Cherry
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Yes, I'm working for the company that produced it. :-)  So far though, we haven't been getting much sales, so I was curious about your thoughts.

I do think that it's too hard to install and set up properly, and you need a dedicated computer to play songs, which can be a problem. Plus, it's written in Director/Shockwave, so it's a real resource hog...

Another problem is that this company is not really into producing "shrinkwrap" software like this, more into consulting, and I think they're not putting enough effort in marketing and the like.

Frederik Slijkerman
Sunday, August 18, 2002

I have this odd hunch, and this could be insultingly wrong, but before this product was released to the world, someone in your office originally wrote the program to use in your office, because it would be cool. I wonder how close I am to the mark there? It would explain why it's in Director (i've been there...)

I'd like to chat about this more actually, both about your product (you never know - you might get some useful feedback) and about the general concept. This discussion board is probably not the place though! Email me i'd like to chat - msnmessenger or something!

cheers
Andrew

Andrew Cherry
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Would anyone actually pay for skinnablity? Didn't think so.

pb
Monday, August 19, 2002

Could someone point me to some of these "barebones" players? I looked for a while and couldn't find anythin half-decent that wasn't skinnable. So I wrote my own that used Winamp plugins for playing by a standard Windows UI. It's not complete but even so I much prefer it to Winamp's UI.

Have a look:
http://homepages.visp.co.nz/~aaronlawrence/Player.html

standard controls, resizable, no skinning. Heaven! :)

Aaron Lawrence
Saturday, August 31, 2002

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