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Programmer Justin Frankel on Winamp, AOL, and Llamas

What makes a great software developer? Legendary programmer and designer Justin Frankel says the most productive programmers have an ability to cut through to what’s really important, focus on that, and then know when they’ve gotten stuff right. He says it’s not true that all developers are anti-social, but that “it’s very easy to spend a great deal of time focusing in on something and then forget to call you friends and that sort of thing.”

In his Big Think interview, Frankel talks about what it was like to be bought by AOL just ahead of the company’s disastrous merger with Time Warner.  While he describes the deal itself as “awesome” and “life-changing,” he admits that the internal politics at AOL began to take a toll once he joined. He ended up rankling his bosses when he released the peer-to-peer file-sharing program gnutella, which allowed users to swap the same media that his parent company was trying to monetize online.

He also talks about the birth of Winamp, one of the first popular MP3 players, and about how online music software has evolved since.  Frankel thinks Apple’s widely popular iTunes is “very dumbed down,” saying that when he was working on Winamp his team always tried to make the software “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.”  He also talks about why the original Winamp player app that came with a default MP3 that said “Winamp. It really whips the llama’s ass.”

Frankel also talked about software patents, asserting that they were essentially just tools for people seeking money in lawsuits. He says the biggest problem is that “you have people patenting things that are essentially math, which is what patents are not supposed to be even about at all. … They are a big problem largely because you can infringe on them without knowing that you do and as a small company you have like very little—you don’t have resources to go and research whether or not you do.  I could write a 100,000 lines of code and for all I know, 50,000 of them infringe on various things.  And I wouldn’t know that.”

Justin Frankel’s interview is the first of a new Big Think series, “Shadowy Nerds: The Unsung Architects of the Digital Age.” In the coming weeks we will feature more interviews with some of the top designers and programmers behind the internet technology we use every day. If you want to be notified when our next video interview in the “Shadowy Nerds” series is posted, please subscribe to the What’s New at Big Think RSS feed.


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