Burn, Watch And Play

The roof of a ConAgra Foods plant in Garner, N.C., collapsed following an explosion Tuesday, June 9, 2009. Between 12 and 15 employees were injured or overcome by toxic fumes from an ammonia leak. Some employees also suffered chemical burns. WRAL

RealNetworks Inc. released a new version on Tuesday of its Internet media-playing software that lets users burn music onto compact discs, watch digital videos and play most audio and video — even if it's programmed in a competitor's format.

The company also announced its fourth major subscription service for consumers, RadioPass, which offers access to thousands of Internet radio stations for a monthly fee.

The company's subscription services, which provide about 25 percent of its revenue, have been a bright spot as other parts of its business have sagged with the soft economy.

RealNetworks' latest version of RealOnePlayer software builds on the company's "Helix" initiative, which was announced in July. At that time, RealNetworks announced new technology that allows companies or others wanting to broadcast programs over the Internet to send it in a single format and still reach most computer users — even if users rely on audio and video software from competitors Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer.

Tuesday's announcement concerns the computer users. Now, on their end, they can use a single program — RealOnePlayer — to view almost any broadcaster's program, regardless of the technology format the broadcaster chooses.

This "universal" media-playing feature is only available to those who subscribe to either the new RadioPass subscription or RealNetworks' SuperPass service, which offers news, entertainment and other exclusive content service for $9.95 a month. RealNetworks also offers a free version of the new RealOnePlayer that excludes the feature.

The announcements come as cross-town rival Microsoft prepares to launch the latest version of its new Windows Media Technologies software in September.

The Redmond software empire has steadily gained market share — offering a free product that comes with its dominant Windows operating system software — and made significant improvements over the years to its media-playing software, analysts said.

Some wonder whether RealNetworks is feeling the pressure.

"You can see they've got to do something and they've got to do something big and they have to do it fast," said Josh Bernoff, principal analyst for Forrester Research. "I think you do have to look at it through the lens of what options does this company have left."

He added that the new player likely won't draw new subscribers, but will help keep the current 750,000-plus subscribers happy.

And RealNetworks may find success in acting more and more like a cable company, where it combines technology with programming that people can't find anywhere else.

"They're really amping the whole subscription model," said John Fletcher, associate analyst for Kagan World Media. "They're definitely leading the marketplace in turning the Internet into a more cable-like environment."
  • Joel Roberts

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