Unplugged: RealNetworks goes wireless

Slow playback could be issue on AT&T, Cingular networks

RealNetworks is going wireless today, launching a subscription package of music, news, film shorts, trailers and sports for cellphone and PDA users.

The RealOne Mobile Guide brings together a number of big-name content companies — most already on the Real’s SuperPass Internet subscription service — to provide a similar package for wireless users in the United States. The company also will offer localized guides in other countries in coming months, especially Europe, where more sophisticated cellphone networks and handsets allow a far broader range of offerings and services.

U.S. content providers include National Public Radio, CNET Radio, the Associated Press, Fox Sports, the PGA Tour, Sporting News Radio, iFilm, Triggerstreet.com, and Virgin, Verve and Atlantic records. The companies will provide everything from hourly five-minute news updates to movie trailers and short films to CD-listening parties and musicvideos.

“We have spent a fair amount of time getting the Real Player into devices,” said Ian Freed, Real’s VP of mobile products and services. “We felt it was real important to get content on here.”

Sports highlight issues

On slower AT&T and Cingular networks, video plays back at a slow 20 to 30 kilobits per second, about half the speed of a standard dialup Internet connection. Freed acknowledged this means sports highlights and other fast-moving video won’t look good until those networks are upgraded. Transmission rates are higher, slightly better than a dial-up connection, on the networks run by Verizon and Sprint, and thus have better quality.

“I would not recommend launching a live sports broadcast on this device,” Freed said, referring to a Nokia 3650 multimedia phone running on AT&T Wireless’ network. But the service is fine for audio and for video that features relatively little movement, such as news anchors.

Free add-on at start

Initially, the service will be a free add-on to a phone service’s offerings. But Freed said he expects the content companies to offer different tiers of service with premium subscriptions ranging from about $4 to $10 a month. Real already has more than 900,000 subscribers paying about $10 a month for its Internet service, the SuperPass. Some SuperPass partners, such as ABC News and Major League Baseball, are in negotiations to join the Mobile Guide program, probably as premium providers.

The Real approach could provide an important new distribution outlet for content companies. Roughly 150 million cellphones were sold in the United States last year, nearly three times that worldwide, and an increasing numbers of those phones have good color screens, decent audio and data capabilities that turn the phones into multimedia devices.

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