Universal Streaming Media Player Launched

Real moves Internet media closer to cable TV model


In an innovation designed to dramatically simplify user access to streaming media content, RealNetworks has introduced the industry's first cross-platform, multiformat universal media player.

The new RealOne Player emulates a television receiver, allowing computer users to choose any online content they prefer without concern for the proprietary encoding system used to create the media feed. Previously, users had to operate separate media players specifically designed for each content type, whether it be RealNetwork's RealAudio and RealVideo, Microsoft's Windows Media, Apple's QuickTime or other less popular streaming media standards.

The new browser, which also combines a host of other media-related functions, is a long-awaited breakthrough in an increasingly competitive and complex streaming media environment. It is also an important step, said RealNetworks, in making streaming media content available on non-PC devices such as video game consoles and advanced mobile telephones.

"This changes the rules of digital media for both consumers and the industry," said Rob Glaser, founder and CEO of the company. "With only one player, consumers can now get all the media they want... just click and it plays."

The new player, available in both free and pay versions, does not negate the need to have the codecs of competing companies installed on the user's PC. It simply acts as an overview application that consolidates all the functions of the different technologies into a single user interface. In addition to accessing and controlling more than 50 media formats, the new player also enables DVD playback, the creation of a music library with burning of music CDs, and access to a host of new premium interactive pay video and audio services.

For RealNetworks, the universal player is an attempt to steal the thunder of arch-competitor Microsoft, the industry giant that is trying to make its Windows Media Player the de facto standard by including it as part of its Windows operating system.

Glaser said that since Microsoft is positioning Windows Media Player as an integrated feature of the Windows OS, RealNetworks decided to take the company at its word. "If this is a feature of the [Windows] operating system and you've got these published interfaces, we'll support those published interfaces and deliver a universal experience," he said.

Coupled with the announcement of the new player, RealNetworks also unveiled new services to further bolster its current position as the Internet's top pay media provider.

Now with more than 750,000 subscribers paying $9.95 a month for its SuperPass premium content service, the company has introduced enhanced radio and college sports services that further emulate the business model of cable television.

RealOne RadioPass ($5.95 a month a la carte) adds 50 new ad-free music channels, improved audio quality, and the Internet's first subscription-only, commercial-free radio station, KPIG of Santa Cruz, Calif., the eclectic freeform FM station that launched in August 1995.

Also added to RealNetwork's pay media offerings are sports broadcasts from more than 45 top colleges and universities. Called College SportsPass ($6.95 a month a la carte), the new service is a media product of the Official College Sports Network (OCSN), an aggregator of online content and commerce related to college athletics.

A major news component of the upgraded SuperPass service comes from ABCNews.com. The Disney-owned subsidiary is the first broadcast television network to spin off its information programming in an on-demand subscription news service. The network's offering is included in the standard SuperPass subscription, or separately at a price of $4.95 a month.

ABC's interactive service allows users to build their own newscasts. At the press briefing announcing the new player, Bernie Gershon, senior vice president and general manager of ABCNews.com, picked individual stories from ABC's World News Tonight and dragged them to an on-screen play window, creating a personal selection of stories to play in a preferred order.

So far, Gershon said, viewers are averaging about 11 minutes watching selected segments from the 20-minute (without commercials) evening newscast anchored by Peter Jennings.

"Having a subscription service and a second revenue stream for our business has allowed us to unlock the premium video assets of ABC News," Gershon said.

ABC is making available to subscribers 30 days of archived World News Tonight and Nightline broadcasts, as well as news archives dating back to the 1960s. Special "director's cuts" of news stories are also being offered exclusively over the pay service.

Gershon sees his network's interactive news efforts soon moving beyond the personal computer. He predicted that within two years ABC would be offering subscription news over digital cable television systems with interactive video-on-demand capability.

Currently, interactive media efforts such as Real's SuperPass are best-suited for broadband users. "In spite of all the things going on in the economy, you don't hear about people unplugging broadband and going back to narrowband - any more than people removing indoor plumbing and going back to the outhouse," Glaser noted. "Broadband is the future. It's how people will experience all kinds of interactive services. That is beyond question."

Digital television broadcasters could embrace the technology if they chose to develop a wireless IP infrastructure, said Larry Jacobson, president and COO of RealNetworks.

"On the digital spectrum side of this, there are ideas out there on how to use that spectrum for content such as this," said Jacobson, a former president of the Fox Television Network. "But they require additional hardware and that hasn't been developed at this point. In broadcasting we were always excited about having the mobile technology that allows on-demand services. A lot of people think it's a real possibility, but it's going to require a build-out of a technology infrastructure."

Glaser is closely watching wireless IP launches over a new generation of high-speed wireless telephone networks. The RealOne Player is already installed on some Nokia cellular telephones. He also thinks game consoles are a promising new platform. Player is now included on Sony Playstation models being shipped in Japan.

The current goal of RealNetworks is to get universal streaming media playback available on as many platforms as possible to see which one "becomes the next great hardware platform for interactive multimedia," said Glaser.

It also means teaming with pioneering content providers unafraid to take a risk. "We look at it this way," said Glaser. "Work with the thought leaders and the rest will follow."

(The free version of RealOne Player for Windows can be downloaded from www.real.com. RealOne Player Plus, with additional features including universal playback, is available for $19.95 or as a component of Realone SuperPass. The SuperPass service, available now for Windows only, will be released for the Macintosh OS X platform within 60 days.)

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.