RealNetworks releases universal player

If you're tired of using three different players to access RealVideo, QuickTime, and Windows Media files online, RealNetworks Inc. has a solution: the release this week of RealOne Player Plus, Version 2 beta, which handles them all. But it will cost you.

To get the player, you must join one of RealNetworks' various monthly subscription services, such as its existing US$9.95 SuperPass or its new $5.95 RadioPass service.

Tuesday's launch comes on the heels of RealNetworks' July 22 announcement of its controversial Helix Platform. The technology lets online content providers stream RealVideo and RealAudio as well as Microsoft's Windows Media and Apple's QuickTime from a single server. Previously, providers needed separate servers for each media type.

RealNetworks developed the Helix technology without licensing Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media format. Dave Richards, RealNetworks vice president of consumer systems, declines to comment on whether legal issues could arise from the company's approach, saying only that the company is "confident we will be able to stay a universal player."

All-in-One Player

In addition to playing Windows Media and QuickTime files, RealOne Player Version 2 can run another 50 different audio and video formats, Richards says. Another first: It now plays DVDs--and does so better than most stand-alone DVD software, he says.

"Most DVD players are bundled with the PC, and they are pretty rough around the edges," Richards says. "Ours is simple, more like using your home DVD player."

Also new in the Plus version are improved CD burning features (including audio leveling and cross-fade), and TurboPlay, which eliminates the need to buffer content if you're using a broadband connection.

The new player also includes gold code for RealVideo 9, which offers significant fidelity enhancements over version 8, Richards says.

RealNetworks will offer a free RealOne Player Version 2, Richard says. However, while that version will play DVDs, it won't let you run QuickTime and Windows Media files. It also won't have as many CD burning and MP3 ripping capabilities, he says.

The company used to offer its Plus players for a one-time fee, but now it provides them only as part of its subscription services, Richards says. You can try the universal player free for 14 days when you sign up for a trial subscription, he says. Also, if you don't want the program to be your default player for all media, you can change the default during setup, he says.

Real Radio Launch

RealNetworks has more than 750,000 active subscribers to its online music services, incuding its own RealOne music service, launched last year). The company expects to draw more listeners with the rollout this week of its new RadioPass service, Richards says.

For $5.95 monthly, you get access to 3200 radio stations, including 50 commercial-free stations, all broadcast at near-CD quality. Among its easy-to-use features is the capability to see what song each station is playing before you click on it, Richards says.

RealNetworks has improved the SuperPass service it launched last December, too, he says. SuperPass subscribers have access to numerous paid-content services such as MLB.com, ABCNews.Com, and Big Brother Three, each of which can cost $5 each, he says.

And SuperPass subscribers will now have access to the 3200 radio stations available through RadioPass, although they'll receive it in the lower fidelity of broadcast quality.

RealNetworks is betting that people are willing to spend extra money each month to get content they want, Richards says. The free trials are designed to whet their appetite. "It's one of those situations where you don't know what you're missing," he says.

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