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RealNetworks launches universal digital music player

Supports MP3, rips CDs -- you need never download another player again

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RealNetworks' launch of RealJukebox yesterday grabbed headlines more for its support for the controversial MP3 digital music format, but that's really the least of the list of points that make the offline music player software important. The release of RealJukebox sees not only Real's numerous strategies to beat back Microsoft begin to coalesce, but the start of moves to consolidate the diverse online music market. Right now RealNetworks has around 85 per cent of the streaming media market. Microsoft wants a part of that business -- a very large part indeed, we'd imagine -- and last month launched Windows Media Technologies (WMT) 4.0 to achieve its goal. What separates WMT from Real's RealSystem G2 is its focus not only on streamed media, but on the download market, what you might categorise those as the online and offline markets. The former requires an active Internet connection to play content; the latter only uses the Net as an acquisition medium -- play back can take place at any time. Pundits can argue about whether the real future of online content is streaming or download, but in the meantime WMT sets Microsoft to command whichever approach wins out in the end. Real's strategy so far has been predicated on the view that streaming will win out. It's not yet clear which approach will dominate, or even whether it's a battle that's going to be fought. However, content providers are a cautious lot and will favour solutions that cover as many bases as possible. The launch of RealJukebox allows Real to catch up with Microsoft and at last offer offline as well as online content. But RealJukebox cleverly goes beyond that. When Real people talk about RealJukebox, they discuss it not so much as an application but as a platform. The idea is that RealJukebox will provide a single front-end to a user's collection of music and video files. The big problem with online music today is that you need half a dozen player to get the most out of it. If Izzy and the Smegs release their latest single on MP3, you need an MP3 player. If, however, The Globules sign up for Liquid Audio, RealAudio, a2b or MS Audio, you'll need a separate player for whatever format they've chosen. That may not matter too much right now, while the online music audience is 90 per cent techies, but it's going to become much more of an issue as more mainstream music fans join in. And this is where RealJukebox comes in, in that it theoretically allows users to replace all their standalone players for a single, multi-format system. RealJukebox has apparently also been designed to interface with various portable players -- Diamond Multimedia and Thomson/RCA have already signed up (see RCA unveils Lyra MP3 player) -- so what we have is a universal PC music system in the making, especially if Real doesn't ignore other computing platforms, including Linux, MacOS and even PalmOS, as it has done in the past. RealJukebox also offers hooks into e-commerce sites -- Amazon.com is a supporter -- so it's gearing up for the business side, too. And you remember Real's upcoming consumer friendly front-end for IBM's Electronic Music Management System, announced the day before Microsoft's WMT launch? It's RealJukebox to a 'T'. Add in Real's RealSystem MP -- it's MP3-based download system a handy CD ripper into the bargain -- and you've got the system online music fans have been waiting for. ®

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