Underground? Mainstream? Do these concepts make any sense when we're talking about Web technology? Tuesday's announcement that America Online purchased Nullsoft, a software start-up whose fame rests squarely within the MP3 music scene, demonstrates once again how fast the Web's techno-subcultures are being absorbed into the maw of the commercial marketplace.
Nullsoft makes Winamp, the most popular audio player for playing MP3 -- compressed music files that download relatively quickly, yet still play with CD-quality, high fidelity sound. The company also created Shoutcast, a system for streaming MP3 files so that any Winamp user can run his or her own Internet radio station.
A year ago, the vibrant MP3 music scene had not quite attracted mainstream attention, but was fast being targeted by the record biz as public enemy No. 1. To such industry heavy hitters as the RIAA -- the Recording Industry Association of America -- MP3 equalled piracy, pure and simple. The Net abounded with fly-by-night online archives from which commercially released music could be downloaded in the MP3 format free of charge. Software such as the Winamp player made listening to the files an effortless pleasure.
Shoutcast technology has run directly afoul of arcane RIAA-enforced regulations that restrict how often songs can be played on radio stations (on and offline). Nullsoft itself can't be accused of MP3 piracy or other RIAA no-nos, but it would be safe to say that Winamp and Shoutcast are enabling technologies that allow Net users to push at the boundaries of how the music business has been conducted up to the present.
But AOL now owns Nullsoft, as well as the Net radio firm Spinner.com. The implications are endless. Most obviously, AOL further positions itself as Microsoft's main competitor in the ongoing battle over which giant corporation will chart the online future. (Microsoft has recently been touting its own proprietary format for playing back music online.) And in one swift stroke, AOL has given the MP3 format more legitimate credibility than it could ever have hoped to gain by support from actual recording artists (who are generally forbidden by their record companies from even the meekest challenge to RIAA hegemony).
But beyond the to-and-fro in the online music biz, there's a deeper question to consider. Is there really such a thing as an "underground" on the Net, at least as far as new technology is concerned? Co-optation strikes more swiftly than ever these days -- yesterday's grass roots innovation is today's shrink-wrapped desktop icon. Can the law keep up?