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WinMX – The Beginning, The Middle, The End
October 4, 2005
Thomas Mennecke
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On October 8, 2000, FrontCode Technologies released an OpenNap client named WinMX. The client was utilitarian in appearance; reminiscent of earlier style Windows based programs. Regardless, the program was readily adopted by a wide following and eventually became one of the most popular OpenNap applications. WinMX was the ugly duckling of the P2P community, a reputation it would hold keep for its entire lifespan. Although clumsy, it gave this application a distinction that other cookie cutter P2P applications to this day fail to replicate.

Introduction

WinMX appeared on the file-sharing landscape towards the end of Napster’s reign. Napster was sued by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) during the later months of 1999. Founder Shawn Fanning, the creator of mainstream P2P networking, defended his network stating the company was not responsible for the activities of its users. Unfortunately for Napster, dozens of indexing servers proved critical to the survivability of the network.

During mid-2000, Judge Madelyn Patel ordered Napster’s servers shut down. However, Napster was able to stay afloat thanks to a last minute injunction. Although Napster would manage to stay in business for several more months, further legal pressures and failed filtering techniques eventually forced the company to pull the plug in March of 2001.

This led to the first great file-sharing crisis. IRC chat rooms were flooded with desperate Napster refugees looking for a new place to call home. One of the more highly recommended resources for ex-Napster users would be the well-established OpenNap community.

However, OpenNap suffered from the same vulnerabilities as Napster. It was essentially the same network, as Napster’s protocol was reversed engineered by the open source community. The difference however, was its centralized servers were maintained by independent communities, such as DeathNap or NecessaryEvil.

The RIAA realized the growing trade of information on the OpenNap network and responded accordingly. In March and April of 2001, the RIAA sent cease & desist notices to the ISPs of almost every major OpenNap ISP. Within a month’s time, the number of servers and the population of the OpenNap community shrank to unsustainable numbers.

Independence Day

With its population decimated, its server’s offline and resourcefulness depleted, WinMX was a client without a network. If FrontCode Technologies were to survive, it needed an immediate solution.

On May 18, 2001, FrontCode released its answer. WinMX 2.6 was released, and ushered in with it a new era of file-sharing. Unlike its predecessors, WinMX 2.6 was no longer just a simple OpenNap client as it established its own decentralized P2P network. Dubbed the WinMX PNP (Peer Networking Protocol) Network, its architecture took advantage of the growing decentralized movement. Its networking architecture was decentralized like Gnutella, however took advantage of supernodes for increased network efficiency. In addition, a host cache server was necessary for the client to connect to the network. The WinMX client would connect to the host cache server and obtain a list of IP addresses of supernodes to communicate with.

During this time, AudioGalaxy, Morpheus, eDonkey2000, Gnutella and WinMX has replaced any need for the now defunct Napster. Each network had its own following, and each network specialized in its own genre of music. AudioGalaxy was tremendous for its discovery and sharing of rare and unique work, while WinMX was appreciated for its well-rounded approach to music. In addition, WinMX became the leading network for high quality MP3.

The Community

Another aspect of the WinMX network was the community that began to surround it. Napster may have been the standard of P2P community, but WinMX challenged this notion. In fact many people will argue the WinMX community easily exceeded the standard set by Napster.

The impressive community that developed around WinMX occurred for several reasons. WinMX, like SoulSeek, is a direct descendant of Napster. Many Napster refugees would become founding members of the WinmX community during its early days as an OpenNap client and as an independent network. The communal nature that accompanied the OpenNap and Napster networks would be further developed on this network.

Also, the WinMX homepage gave little in the way of technical support or community forums. This forced many members of the WinMX network to initiate their own communities, support forums and IRC chat rooms. Later versions of WinMX would strengthen this community by establishing decentralized chat.

WinMX would make impressive gains during the rest of 2001, however small cracks would soon become apparent. These cracks would manifest themselves as lengthy queues – or being placed on a waiting list for a download.

Newer P2P networks and clients such as FastTrack, iMesh and XoloX had already incorporated the much sought after “multi-source” downloading feature. Invented by iMesh, this feature enhanced download speeds, while allowing the end user to not rely on one source for a successful download. As time went on, the demand for this feature became increasingly vocal. For certain, it was believed, this feature would resolve most of WinMX’s problems.

If anything can be said about the WinMX community, is its incredible level of patience. A prelude of events to come, the WinMX community waited for the promised and much heralded version 3.0. As typical, the WinMX homepage remained static yet hope was once again restored in version 3.0 when FrontCode emailed Slyck on December 27, 2001. From FrontCode president Kevin Hearn:

“[There’s a] high probability we will be beginning public beta testing within the next 10. We've just finished the first full alpha builds of the new version, and have been testing the hell out of it for the last couple of days...it looks good, but we really won't know exactly what to expect until we get the public beta test going and there are a few thousand computers running the new protocol simultaneously."

The WinMX community rejoiced as on January 30, 2002, WinMX 3.0 Beta was released. Months of beta testing finally resulted in the release of WinMX 3.1 on May 16, 2002.

Population Explosion

For a time, all seemed well on the WinMX network. Queues remained problematic, yet the multi-source feature appeared to alleviate the reliance on a single source. WinMX was now in the mainstream, and its population soared to heights beyond Napster. Although FastTrack at this time claimed the P2P crown, this remained dubious as new figures indicating WinMX’s population rolled in.

In an interview with Kevin Hearn on March 30, 2002, WinMX’s population had reached nearly 1 million simultaneous users. FrontCode president Kevin Hearn:

“On Monday, I finally put our recent hardware upgrades to work and put a trace into our system to measure unique IP levels in our v2.6 peer caches. The lowest day this week (Wednesday) there were ~2.1 million unique IPs that used any of our v2.6 caches. On the highest day (Friday), we measured 2.7M unique IPs. Based on these numbers, I would conservatively estimate our daily simultaneously connected client peak at about 1 million. Because we only know when a user gets on the network, and not when they exit, converting the daily unique count into a peak population count is a bit sketchy at best.”

The coming months would only add more users to the WinMX network.

“The manner in which the 3.x series peer network and it's caches operate makes it much more difficult for us to calculate any network population counts. However, based on what we see on the network (search results, # of chat rooms, etc...), I would estimate the network is growing by at least 10% per week since the release of v3.22.”

If we assume there was no growth in WinMX’s population between March 30, 2002, and July 10, 2002, the population would remain at 1 million – an extremely conservative estimate. WinMX 3.22 was released on June 22, 2002, which gave the network 2 weeks to grow at 10%. Using this estimate, the estimated population of the WinMX network would be 1.2 million users, only 300,000 fewer than Napster’s peak population. If we liberalize these estimates, by this time in 2002 WinMX had easily surpassed Napster.

Days of Static

During the summer and fall months of 2002, all seemed relatively well for the WinMX network. Files were plentiful, bitrates were high and the community was thriving. The only complaint – albeit a relatively minor one for some people – was the growing queue problem.

On September 6, 2002, WinMX released WinMX version 3.3. This version introduced the “find more sources” feature that acted as a band-aid to the troubling queue situation. Perhaps most importantly, the last remnants of the old network (2.6) were swept away, angering many in the community. Yet FrontCode defended this position, citing the vitality of the network.

“The peer caching system used by WPNP in v2.6 was somewhat primitive due to the short timeframe in which it was originally implemented, yet it was efficient and economical for us to operate when that network had a large population. However, the release of 3.1 obviously reduced the population of that network to a small fraction of it's former self, and especially reduced the number of users on that network that have primary connections. Ever since then, the old network has been shrinking and the ratio of v2.6 primary connections to v2.6 secondary (client) connections has steadily dropped, while at the same time the number of repeated hits from v2.6 secondary connections on the peer cache has exponentially increased due to the sporadic lack of primaries able to host them. This situation came to a head shortly after v3.3 was released and the v2.6 network shrank even more, which brought the flood of repeated hits on the cache to an all time high. It was at this point we decided to eliminate the old caches.”

FrontCode also addressed the queue situation; to the relief of many in the WinMX community who began to think the problem may simply be swept under the rug.

“We are launching a three pronged attack on this situation:

1> Upcoming versions will have major improvements to the way files are shared and uploads are managed. These changes will mean more files are on the network, as well as more available upload slots.

2> More and more users are behind the default Win XP firewall, which means files shared by non-firewalled users are in heavier demand than normal, causing somewhat longer queues especially on big files. We have placed a high priority on solving this emerging firewall problem and I'm confident future versions will have a solution.

3> We are currently researching and developing groundbreaking new network algorithms which will greatly increase network efficiency, and will result in much better overall utilization of upload slots relative to geographic location, further speeding file transfers.”

Indeed, the last proposed resolution resonated well with the WinMX community, as it became apparent its core network architecture had remained unchanged in over a year. Never the less, many felt the queue situation was easily resolved by lining songs up for download before a long night’s rest.

WinMX 3.31, which offered several improvements upon 3.3, was released on October 19, 2002.

Version 4.0

During the mid months of 2003, FrontCode began speaking of the highly anticipated WinMX 4.0. In August of 2003, FrontCode informed Slyck that October 2003 was a reasonable estimate for the release of WinMX 4.0.

Slyck followed up with Kevin in September, however the situation did not appear promising.

"I think I had mentioned late October in our last correspondence as a rough estimate of when the next beta release would be. At the moment, I'd say it's 50/50 as to whether we'll make that estimate. We're nearing the end of actual development and will be beginning preliminary testing in the next few weeks, and it's hard to say what problems could arise, especially with a 100% new code base."

Again, Slyck spoke with Kevin in November of 2003 regarding the status of version 4.0.

"...Unfortunately nothing new happening over here, just clicking away trying to get this thing done. [It] feels like we're re-inventing the wheel over here. Hopefully I've got something solid by the end of the year."

On December 25, 2003, Slyck followed up once again, only to learn of more delays.

“Probably not going to be done by the end of the month as I had hoped, but we're getting there.”

The Long Wait, Some Hope, and the Last Gasp

Between October 19, 2002, and June 13, 2004, almost 20 months had past. Such a long duration might as well be 20 years in the P2P community. During that time, the P2P and file-sharing community witnessed the rise of BitTorrent, Ares Galaxy, eDonkey2000 and Gnutella. With more efficient and advanced networks slowly encroaching on WinMX’s domain, many began to question their loyalty to this community and began jumping ship. The dozens of WinMX communities that had established themselves slowly either died out or transitioned to other P2P communities.

The queue problem during these nearly two years became hopelessly impossible for large segments of this network. In addition, the lack of updates frustrated many in this community causing further population losses.

Yet on June 13, 2004, the WinMX community would one again be encouraged by rejuvenated development efforts. On this date, WinMX 3.52 was released. Improvements included ‘…a new WPNP Channel hosting component, as well as several key upgrades to the channel client window and controls. The channel list now features a filter bar making finding a known channel very easy. Other various minor upgrades.”

“Minor updates” set off many WinMX critics, who contend this release was nothing more than a filler version to keep those speculating about WinMX’s demise at bay. Those who believed in FrontCode and WinMX however, continued to holdout hope. Indeed, the upcoming version schedule had many promising new features, such as upgrading the core WinMX PNP.

A finalized release, version 3.53, was release on July 2, 2004. FrontCode released four 3.54 Betas, the last of which was released on December 14, 2004. These versions resolved some bug fixes and improved the media library.

The End

Although many had given up on WinMX and moved on to other networks, some still held faith in the community. And the community that surrounded WinMX was perhaps the only thing that kept this network from completely disintegrating. Regardless, the WinMX client had remained virtually unchanged since January 2002.

On September 13, 2005, FrontCode Technologies was the recipient of a cease and desist letter from the RIAA. The RIAA letter demanded that FrontCode immediately stop the encouragement of copyright infringement on its network. Several days later on September 21, 2005, shocked members of this network found them unable to connect. FrontCode complied by taking the WinMX domain down, along with the critical host cache server.

As a testament to the amazing cultural influence of this network, as well as the strength and ingenuity of its community, the network was resurrected two days later. Primitive host cache servers were established allowing the WinMX client to connect the restored network. A more permanent solution is currently being worked on

While some scoffed at the idea and merely suggest another network, one has to remember the endurance and vitality of a P2P community; which in this circumstance proved to be mightier than the network itself. This fact is further supported by the surge of WinMX as the second gaining search term on Google.com ending the month of September.

Whether this is truly the end of WinMX is unknown. The WinMX.com domain has been reregistered in Port Vila, Vanuatu, a small island in the south Pacific.

Some extremists still wait for the second coming of WinMX and hope it will fulfill the great promise this network once had.


This story is filed in these Slyck News categories
P2P Clients :: WinMX
File-Sharing/P2P Related :: Statistics/Analysis

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