RealTime IT News

Real Networks Looking to Pay the Light Bills

Real Networks recently unveiled its grand plan to monetize its more than 140 million eyeballs by charging users $10 per month to access RealPlayer GoldPass. The new service will offer users exclusive features like rock concerts and documentaries. But I've got two words for Rob Glaser - good luck - you're gonna need it.

While most Web enthusiasts don't mind viewing scantily clad swimsuit models on a two-by-three-inch screen through myopic clarity, they're not likely to pay a monthly subscription fee for the privilege. And unless they're on the broadband-wagon, the latest announcement will effectively exclude most Internet users who are still surfing on skinny pipes.

Granted, turning a buck with streaming audio and video is no easy feat. Companies who embrace banner ads typically shun buying ad space in an unproven medium, so Real Networks does at least get a golf clap for the effort. Ultimately, the most difficult obstacle the company may yet face is its own sell-at-all-cost business strategy that's clouded the user experience and allowed competitors to chip away at the company's once insurmountable pole position.

A couple of years ago, finding quality material to listen to or watch was the largest barrier to entry when using a media player. But today, both savvy and increasingly new users know where to get the goods. In turn, that's greatly reduced Real Network's role to little more than a conduit for playing your favorite tunes or Web clips. With comparable competing products readily available from rivals, users inevitably flock to the "best" player. More often than not, that's first measured in the pocketbook, and next through the user experience.

Microsoft and Real are the two bullies on the block. They both have their fair share of drawbacks, but Real Networks is often like an obnoxious carnival barker, feeling far too pushy during install for my taste. If you're a new PC user, the pitfalls to installing RealPlayer can be difficult to avoid. When signing up for RealPlayer, I want a free, simple media player with a clean interface. Instead, I feel like the Flintstones at the drive-through getting a rack of brontosaurus ribs mounted on the side of my car.

For starters, Real insists on trying to plant itself in the System Tray (the bottom right hand corner of the desktop where your clock sits), siphoning valuable system resources. By default, users are left with an interface that has more bells and whistles than the cockpit of the space shuttle. To get the bare minimum that most users are looking for, the set-up process is confusing enough that Houdini would be pulling his hair out.

One of my biggest gripes also has to be how Real Networks shamelessly buries the free version of its media player everywhere on its site almost intentionally misleading some consumers into buying the pay version. Without digging extensively into Real Network's used car salesman Web site, suffice it to say, the company hardly has a single link on its entire site for its free version that's larger than a "Terms of Use" link.

The Windows Media Player wasn't an ink spot on the page a few years ago. But steadily, the software has been grabbing mind-share by the wheelbarrow-full. While Microsoft's near monopoly on the operating system market has nearly everything to do with its success, the software giant at one time appeared to have devoted more thought to the user experience. It kept things simple, and didn't try to trick the user at every turn.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, an