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Real preps player, tunes

Upgrades media player, unveils download service

HOLLYWOOD — Real Networks will venture into online music retailing and unveil today the next generation of its digital media player and its supporting codecs. The first upgrade to its media player software in two years and Real’s version of services offered by Napster and iTunes are to debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Download store will be integrated into Real Player 10, new version of the company’s media player that will become available for download today. Upgrades include a new application allowing users to search for audio or video content on the Web and support for nearly all other media formats besides Real such as Windows Media, QuickTime and MP3.

Real already has more than 30 million players distributed to consumers throughout the country. And while Real’s library of over 300,000 songs at launch and pricing of 99¢ per download is similar to its rivals, company hopes to differentiate itself through a broader array of original editorial content and albums that it will stream for free each week.

“It’s the difference between shopping at Wal-Mart or going to Amoeba Records,” said Tim Quirk, Real’s executive editor of music. “Our hierarchy, music guide, genre pages and reviews are all created by our staff. We think we’ve created a music lounge, not just a store.”

Real is able to offer a more fleshed-out store than some of its competitors thanks in part to its existing Rhapsody service, which offers unlimited streams of music for $9.99 a month and will share much of its editorial content with the new download service.

Company has previously asserted that it believes subscription services will ultimately draw more consumers than download stores, and Quirk said that while Real wants its store to prove successful with the market segment that prefers downloads, it also will be used to drive subscribers to Rhapsody.

The new store should also benefit from a deal Real Networks signed with Wenner Media to take over the operation of its RollingStone.com site from VU Net USA, the online division of Vivendi Universal. While financial terms were not disclosed, Real gains an obvious benefit in marketing its musicstore and Rhapsody services to RollingStone.com readers in exchange for running the site.

Real Player 10 also will support the AAC format, which Apple uses for downloads in its iTunes Music Store. Thus, while songs purchased from Real’s store will not work on the Apple iPod, Real Player 10 will be able to manage songs downloaded from iTunes and also interface smoothly with an iPod, the only media player besides Apple’s to do so.

The download store will support several portable devices of its own, however. Real Networks has signed deals with PalmOne and Creative Labs to offer direct transfer and playback of its songs on their digital music players.

Decision to support other media formats, including songs downloaded from other stores, marks a difference between Real and some of its competitors, which attempt to build exclusive software that forces users to buy content and technology products from that company.

“As long as we have the best quality, our media formats and our musicstore will do just fine,” said Dan Sheeran, Real’s senior VP of marketing. “We want to reach as many people as possible, so it’s in our interest to have an environment where people can play content they get elsewhere.”

Along with the new media player, Real’s audio and video codecs are being upgraded as well. The audio upgrade will allow multichannel sound while the video improvements increase download efficiency by over 25% compared with the last Real codec and the existing Windows offering. Sheeran said that would allow video providers to either decrease download times or, in the same time it takes with the old codec, upgrade the quality to that of a DVD.

The improved codecs will be playable on Real Player 9 to encourage content providers to upgrade before most consumers have downloaded the new player.

Upgrade to Real Player 10 comes during Real Networks 10th anniversary. To celebrate it and promote the new musicstore, company will offer 10¢ downloads to consumers for the first 10 days.

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