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RealTime IT News

Sounds Like (Real) Desperation

It's hard to have sympathy for RealNetworks , and believe me, as a paying customer, I'm really trying.

The company is spending -- and losing -- a lot of money to spruce up its image with consumers. But Real is running the risk of seeing its "we're the victim" tactics backfire in the face of consumer distrust.

For years, RealNetworks made a point to hide the download link to its free RealPlayer, tricking lots of users into downloading the media player that would only work properly with a paid subscription. The software was bloated, slow to load and annoying to use.

Some of the clunkiness has been fixed in later iterations of the product and the "free RealPlayer" link is in a more prominent place on the company's homepage. And yes, the newest RealPlayer 10 offers some nifty features, none more sweet than the ability to pause a live stream, a la TiVo. Yet, the distrust has lingered, and even a 50 percent price cut on song downloads isn't likely to convince users to migrate in droves from Apple's iTunes.

Even the new and aggressive anti-Apple strategy, which paints RealNetworks as victims of an iPod lockout, has sputtered badly and reeks of desperation. Real's public relations staff, which manages the Freedom of Music Choice blog, could not figure out whether they wanted to enable or disable comments from the public. First, comments were enabled, then disabled, then enabled again and, as of Friday morning, disabled again.

How's that for a well-planned strategy? A "freedom of choice" blog unsure whether readers should have the freedom to respond to the anti-Apple articles. Surely, Real's PR department had to know that Apple's fans are among the most rabidly loyal consumers and that the reaction would be swift. (Even I know this. All I did was refer to a Mac OS X security patch as a "monster," because of its size, only to be bombarded with e-mail complaints from Mac fans.)

We've been down this road before. Recall the early days of the browser war. AOL cried victim in the Netscape vs. Internet Explorer fight and asked us to choose between a toothache and a migraine. Consumers made no bones about their dislike of the big bad Microsoft, but Netscape still became irrelevant.

Last I checked, no one (well, outside of Real's PR folks) really hates Apple's digital music business. The iPod is a great device and the marketing campaigns that have made the iPod a fashion statement are nothing short of brilliant. The iTunes Music Store is a clever piece of work that simplifies the buying, listening and CD-burning experience.

RealNetworks should try to emulate Apple, not whine about the pie-in-the-sky "freedom" that few care about. It should just compete the old-fashioned way: fix its product; beef up its distribution; and get creative with its marketing campaigns. Barking about Apple's iPod, with little to no justification for doing so, isn't endearing Real to anyone.

The Rhapsody music service is an impressive place to start. I'm a Rhapsody subscriber because the subscription-based unlimited listening option appeals to me.

Instead of a "woe is me" campaign, Real should be spending its marketing dollars on highlighting the improvements in RealPlayer (and there are many impressive ones) and getting the word out on Rhapsody's fabulous all-you-can-listen model.

Next week, when Microsoft joins the game, Real's market share is bound to dwindle, especially when Microsoft uses its MSN portal, Hotmail, MSN Messenger and Windows Media Player empire to attract customers.

If, as Rolling Stone hints, Redmond launches its music store with the Beatles catalog among the 700,000 tracks for sale at 99 cents apiece, things can only go downhill for RealNetworks.

But then again, it already has.