Real Music Store Opens for Business

RealNetworks is announcing a major new release of its media player that has a digital music store built into it, beating perennial cross-town rival Microsoft to the punch.

RealNetworks is also adopting the AAC (advanced audio coding) format for its music store, and is acquiring an exclusive license for RollingStone.com, the online presence of Rolling Stone magazine. Vivendi Universal held the license, which has now been granted to RealNetworks by Wenner Media, the owner of the Rolling Stone publication. The announcements are being made at the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts Thursday in Las Vegas.

RealPlayer 10 is the first major new version of RealNetworks' media player in two years. It will play RealNetworks' own audio formats as well as Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA), Apple Computer's QuickTime, and the secure versions of those, says Dan Sheeran, senior vice president of marketing at RealNetworks, in Seattle.

"We're introducing a new player that consumers can use to play all content from any online music store as well as content from their own CDs," Sheeran says.

On the Inside

The music store inside RealPlayer 10 is based on Rhapsody, RealNetworks' music subscription service. Songs in the new store will cost $0.99 and can be burned to a CD, played on a PC, or transferred to portable devices that support AAC and RealNetworks' Helix DRM (digital rights management) technology, Sheeran says.

AAC is the same format used by Apple for its ITunes service. AAC competes with Microsoft's WMA format. Both AAC and WMA are formats for storing compressed audio data.

RealPlayer 10 is arguably the first mainstream media player with a built-in music store. Microsoft is working on a music download service that it plans to launch this year but has yet to provide details of the service. The Redmond, Washington, software giant currently promotes third-party music services through its Windows Media Player.

Shopping Around

RealNetworks' music store is designed to allow users to browse and sample music, much like in a brick-and-mortar music store, Sheeran says. "The other online stores are basically cut-and-dry purchase environments; our music store is primarily about listening and discovery," he says. "The odds are that you're going to buy something before you leave."

Content from the RollingStone.com Web site, for which RealNetworks now has an exclusive license, will be included in the music store as well as the Rhapsody service, Sheeran said. Furthermore, RealNetworks plans to promote its music services on RollingStone.com, he says. Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.

To promote the music store built into RealPlayer 10, for the first ten days starting January 7 the first track will cost only $0.10 to download, Sheeran says. In the second quarter, RealNetworks will launch a joint promotion with Heineken in the U.S. offering two free downloads with every 12-pack of Heineken beer, he says.

Other enhancements in RealPlayer 10 include faster CD burning built into the player and advances in audio and video encoding, offering better quality and support for surround sound. DVD-quality video can now be offered at 1 megabit per second, Sheeran says.

Important Step

The new RealNetworks player is important for consumers, content providers, and RealNetworks itself, says Mike McGuire, research director at Gartner G2, a division of Gartner, in San Jose, California.

For consumers it offers ease of use by supporting all major formats in one player, while for content providers it shows that RealNetworks' technology is evolving, McGuire says. For RealNetworks itself it is an effort to stay competitive in the digital media market, he says.

RealPlayer 10 is available in free and paid versions for Windows 98 and later releases of Microsoft's Windows operating system. The first release is available in English only, and the music store is open only to U.S. residents. Versions of RealPlayer 10 for other operating systems and in other languages are planned, Sheeran says.

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