In the past few years, some of the most revolutionary software emerged not from Silicon Valley startups or high-powered universities, but from a humble online chat room.

Many in the tech industry are beginning to recognize that a string of influential concepts can be traced to a single Internet Relay Chat channel called #Winprog.

The IRC channel has played virtual incubator to a gamut of fledgling developers for more than a decade, helping Shawn Fanning polish the earliest versions of Napster and acting as code consultancy when Gnutella developer Justin Frankel wrote Winamp.

Devotees say the channel has become an under-the-radar institution to the Windows programming world. Many of its veterans have landed jobs at leading technology firms, and Microsoft staff even tap regulars for help with their own operating system.

It’s better, members say, than any Silicon Valley business park.

“Except for not having any cash, #Winprog puts most tech incubators to shame,” said Ben Knauss, a channel veteran and Microsoft consultant who has managed several big software projects, including the software that powered the first iPod.

“My own experience with incubators was something akin to, ‘Come work in our offices and give us half your stock, and we’ll answer your telephone and pretend we’re providing lots of other resources.’ With #Winprog, you get technical support, advice, critical review and at times even manpower to help finish your project.”

It is the kind of supportive environment that lured Fanning, aka “Napster,” to the channel in 1999, looking for input on his nascent file-sharing application.

Many of the #Winprog old guard remember the teen as “an annoying newbie” who needed help writing Napster’s user interface.

“I actually remember making fun of (him) because of his bad design,” said Chris Redekop, a channel devotee of nine years whose Alberta, Canada, software firm Replicon is among the many to have hired programming talent out of #Winprog’s gene pool.

“When he first joined the channel, he knew next to nothing of Windows programming,” Redekop said. “His coding skills weren’t that advanced.”

By Robert Andrews

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