Hailing the move as one that brings choice to online music services users, RealNetworks has introduced software that lets songs downloaded from its own music store be played on a variety of devices, essentially breaking Apple's proprietary grip on its market-leading iPod music player.
The new software, called Harmony, will be incorporated into RealPlayer 10.5, which will now go into beta test mode. Harmony will let users download songs from the RealPlayer Music Store into more than 70 music player devices, including the iPod and iPod mini, and products from Creative Labs, Dell, Gateway and Samsung.
Harmony is designed to support any device that uses the Apple FairPlay DRM (digital rights management) technology, the Microsoft Windows Media Audio DRM or the RealNetworks Helix DRM, according to Sean Ryan, RealNetworks' vice-president of music services.
However, it's the ability to let RealPlayer Music Store tunes be played on the market-dominant iPod that is sure to arouse the most interest. Songs bought from Apple's iTunes are encrypted with the company's FairPlay DRM, which works only with the iPod, and Apple has not licensed the technology to other companies seeking compatibility with the music device.
RealNetworks did not work with Apple on Harmony, Ryan said.
In fact, Apple never responded to the offer several months ago from of Rob Glaser, RealNetworks founder and chief executive officer, to work with Apple.
Apple's integrated music service, comprising its iTunes Music Store, its DRM and the iPod, has made it the number-one online music distributor and catapulted the iPod into the leadership position in the player market, according to analysts.
The company has been protective of its service so far, and its licensing agreement prohibits iPod users from reverse engineering or otherwise attempting to derive the source code of its software.
But RealNetworks' Ryan said that the company did not reverse engineer Apple code.
"Reverse engineering is a misleading legal term," Ryan said. "It implies a method of looking at the software and seeing how it's built. We looked at publicly available data moving between the user and the iPod. We have very smart engineers that have been working on DRM for a long time."
"The RealNetworks software might be attractive if they have exclusive content not available though Apple....but even so, why would an iPod owner bother to switch devices," Deal said, considering that RealNetworks Music Store tunes can be played on iPods.
In addition, if it turns out that RealNetworks does offer a wider range of content that Apple, Apple will likely respond positively, Deal said. "Apple has been responsive to customer demand so far, making the iPod compatible with Windows," he pointed out.
The RealNetworks announcement is nevertheless positive for the company and the online music industry, according to Deal. "RealNetworks will attract people interested in having a choice, and it might make people feel safer about their music choices."