RealNetworks moves Rhapsody to the Web

Along with first fruits of Microsoft deal, RealNetworks' core music subscription service gets an online makeover.

RealNetworks' core music subscription service is migrating onto the Web on Monday, in a move that includes some of the first fruits of its recent antitrust settlement with Microsoft.

The company is creating a new version of its Rhapsody digital music service that will let people search and listen to its catalog of songs from a Web page, instead of requiring them to download software. Along with that new version, Microsoft will begin promoting Rhapsody over the next week through its Media Player software and on the MSN Music site.

RealNetworks executives hope the new version, in conjunction with a previous offer allowing people to listen to 25 songs for free, will make it easier for Web surfers to understand what a subscription music service is all about.

"Prior to downloading the software, people don't know what the experience is," said Dan Sheehan, the company's senior vice president of consumer services. "It's like the TiVo problem. Until you experience it, you don't get it."

RealNetworks' move is part of a broader drive to make music services more accessible on Web pages, rather than through the downloadable software that is typical of most music stores and subscription plans today. Companies are hoping they can reach an audience that has so far stayed away from paying for digital music, by making their products simpler to find and launch from any Web browser.

America Online, which recently purchased Circuit City's MusicNow division, is developing a new Web-based subscription plan, for example. Napster also recently said it will begin offering more music though its Web site.

"People use the Web and search tools to find more music," GartnerG2 analyst Mike McGuire said. "If (companies) can provide that easy entryway--that showroom to try the services out before buying--it is an important step."

The new online version of Rhapsody will have most, but not all, of the features of the downloadable older version, which will still be available. Unlike the older version, it will also be compatible with Macintosh and Linux-based computers, however.

Listeners will be able to search the database of 1.4 million songs and make a playlist of up to 25 songs for free. Playing the songs will pop up a small music player in a separate window.

Paying subscribers to the service can listen to unlimited amounts of music through the Web-based version. However, they will not have the same ability to download songs to their hard drives or MP3 players, or manage the other music on their computers.

RealNetworks is also hoping that other Web sites, from music magazines to MP3 bloggers, will post links to the service. The company is providing a way to link directly to individual songs through this Web-based platform, so that a blogger might allow visitors to listen to a favorite song for free by popping up the Rhapsody player.

The direct link to songs will initially be demonstrated on the RollingStone.com site, which is operated by RealNetworks.

Microsoft's role in promoting Rhapsody remains small for now, without the direct links inside the MSN Messenger service that the two companies showed off in October. Those features will likely appear by mid-2006, RealNetworks executives have said.

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