SAN FRANCISCO—A day after Apple Computer Inc.s introduction of new iPods and updates to the companys leading digital music service here at the Macworld Expo show, RealNetworks Inc. on Wednesday announced a major update to its digital audio and video strategy that looks to go head-to-head with Apples digital rights management technology.
RealNetworks announced its own online music store as well as a re-vamped RealPlayer for Windows that will let its customers play music purchased through Apples iTunes Music Store, without a license for Apples FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) scheme.
Analysts said RealPlayers support for iTunes songs is likely to prove controversial and could spur Apple to consider legal action, or implement software patches that would prevent playing of its music file format. RealNetworks officials responded that the company did not violate copyrights by allowing users to play any content they rightfully own.
The new RealPlayer 10 for Windows uses a new Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) technology to compress files. The updated player supports five different audio formats: the companys own Real format, Windows Media Audio (WMA), MP3, standard Advanced Audio Coding, and Apples version of AAC. RealNetworks said the company will release an updated Player for Macintosh offering similar features later this year.
The Player will scan on a users hard drive and look for files in one of the five formats. For the files in Apples AAC encoding, the RealPlayer 10 software will play a selected title, as long as a matching software key is discovered that verifies that the music file is a legal copy and that the machine has iTunes for Windows installed.
That RealPlayer 10 can play imported Apple AAC files without Apple having given RealNetworks the rights to its DRM that could become an issue. Apples AAC files are encased in its own proprietary DRM technology, called FairPlay, and Real has worked around the code.
Ryc Brownrig, general manager of product management and business development for the Seattle, Wash.-based RealNetworks declined to explain how the company worked around Apples DRM technology. He defended the companys action, adding that once the digital key for a particular piece of music is placed on the owners PC, that action should provide the content owner the right to play a music file in any format, and on any player.
“The user has been granted rights based on their purchase from the iTunes store to play back that content on their Windows-based PC,” Brownrig said. “Were abiding by the rules and simply allowing users to play a file through our player. We dont think there is an issue here.”
Apple was not immediately available to comment on RealNetworks support of iTunes files.
Brownrig expressed hope that Apple would not patch iTunes to prevent RealPlayer 10 from playing iTunes files. “Why would they [Apple] want to negatively impact the user experience?” he said. “Were just facilitating something and playing back the content. People are still buying content from Apple.”
However, Joe Wilcox, senior analyst with Jupiter Research of Darien, Conn., said Apple will have problems with the Real Networks playing of its DRM-protected files. “Apple has typically sought to control the user experience from end to end to ensure the best customer experience. Its possible Apple might have some issues with a potential rivals perceived interference with that experience.”
RealPlayer 10 will also feature built-in support for the companys RealPlayer Music Store, which also will compete with Apples music store by offering titles at 99 cents per download. The company also announced Wednesday that for the next 10 days, U.S. customers that download RealPlayer 10 will receive their first song download for 10 cents. The software is available for free download on the RealOne SuperPass Web site.
Analysts acknowledged that RealNetworks faces stiff competition from a growing list of companies offering stores, including Walmart Stores Inc. and Microsoft Corp. “Real has going to have to offer something different from the competition in terms of content,” said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner Inc. “But Real has always been good and finding rich content and convincing customers its worth buying or subscribing.” Discuss This in the eWEEK Forum