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”

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

d Softie sure botched
its latest version with the feature-crippled Windows Media Player 7.0. Not
to mention a license agreement that looks like it was written by George
Orwell himself. Ironically, your best bet is to stick with last year’s model. That goes for RealPlayer and double for WMP. If you’re
sticking just to music, go with the original Model T Winamp by Nullsoft.

Any questions or comments, love letters or hate mail? As always, feel
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