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June 21, 2007

Is RealPlayer going to make a comeback?

Real Networks' newest RealPlayer player appears to be a huge departure from their earlier client-side products.  While the Helix server technology and the RealVideo codecs have been ones-to-beat in streaming media technology, the RealPlayer has been the face of the company to the user community - and it hasn't always been a pretty face.  Real's marketing folks, in the heat of their battle for survival with Microsoft, saw RealPlayer as a the company's direct pipeline to users' pocketbooks.  

Let's face it - the RealPlayer, despite its technological excellence (SMIL 1.0 & 2.0, universal format support, the industry's best codecs, and support for nearly every OS and browser out there) became an abomination - big heavy download, cumbersome registration required, ads and eye candy all over the place, "notifications" that pop up and annoy with marketing messages.

Fast-forward to today -- In the new world of the Web, Flash is taking over because its player is everywhere and its user experience is simple, unmarred by distractions, and an easy download in the unlikely case you need it.  I've even been able to install the Flash player using Firefox's XPI Flash installer - no UI whatsoever, just one click and it's in.

So with many of Real's remaining customers (there are many, especially in the higher-education industry) avidly looking for alternatives to RealPlayer, and Real rapidly approaching irrelevance in the video technology space, RealNetworks has come up with a new approach. Real's new player (RealPlayer 11) boasts two major innovations:
  1. The player is small and unobtrusive, with a quick, easy install that asks no questions, takes over nothing, and generally leaves you alone.
  2. In what could be a stunning new capability, RP11 will download non-DRM-protected video from any website, in any format (Flash. Real, QuickTime, WindowsMedia, etc).  While you're watching that video on YouTube, Google, Metacafe, Brightcove, or anywhere else, RP11 will add a little "save this" button to the video itself. 
The idea is that RealPlayer becomes the base of your personal video library. You can share (by sending around links to the original source), or with a $30 upgrade, burn to DVD disc. Presumably, one of these options will let you easily flip content to your iPod.  There's a pretty good video demo given by Real VP Jeff Chasen at Scobleizer.com.

Dan Rayburn at the Business of Online Video blog wonders what's the business advantage to Real?

Now aside from the obvious idea that content owners may revolt at the idea of people being able to save their content whether they want them to or not, I just don't see the value to RealNetworks in a new player. Why offer it?  

And I think the bigger question is, do we really need more players in the industry? Isn't it already hard enough for consumers? How many more players and plugins are we going to try and force viewers to have to download?

He's not alone.  Real's CEO Rob Glaser makes his case in his post The World Isn't Flat, and responds directly to Rafat Ali's "Open Questions to Rob Glaser" in his own RealNetworks Blog post.

The new RealPlayer gives the users lots of control over Internet video -- watching it offline, burning it to CD or DVDs, storing it in a library, etc. Sharing content links directly from the RealPlayer library can be really useful. A number of people who’ve tested the pre-beta have told me that they love watching a few seconds of a video on a web site, then using RealPlayer to download a copy for later viewing.

My take?  Looking at the education industry, up to now I see a large investment in Real's technology that's been feeling more and more like a liability, strictly because of the horrendous RealPlayers of the RealONE/RP10 generation.  Folks are looking at costly switches to Flash video infrastructure not because the video or server technology is so great, but mainly because the player has mindshare and doesn't do anything to piss-off its users.  

So, if Real's new player is something that a) is a no-brainer to install and use; and b) provides truly useful functionality on top of the enormous-and-growing world of online video content, it may just become relevant again to online users. And that's good for Real's existing customers, for sure.  How that helps Real acquire new paying customers isn't clear to me, but I'd guess that anything that makes RealPlayer more relevant in the marketplace has to be a good first step.

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