RealNetworks offers free songs for new service

Multimedia company taps Microsoft tech for new iTunes rival, offers free basic music subscriptions.

Internet multimedia company RealNetworks has overhauled its Rhapsody digital music service, in a high-profile launch aimed at regaining ground lost to Apple Computer's iTunes.

Eschewing the format wars that have marked the digital music business--and much of RealNetworks' own past--the company is tapping Microsoft for technology that allows songs to be transferred to some MP3 players. Until recently, most monthly music subscription services barred songs from being transferred from a computer to a portable device.

But RealNetworks is also extending a bridge to cost-conscious digital music newcomers, offering people the ability to listen to 25 songs a month without paying anything at all.

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What's new:
RealNetworks has released an updated version of Rhapsody that lets people listen to 25 songs a month without paying anything at all, a move meant to challenge Apple's iTunes.

Bottom line:
The Net multimedia company has tapped rival Microsoft for technology that allows songs to be shifted to MP3 players, eschewing the format wars that have marked the digital music business.

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"We believe that once consumers experience Rhapsody and share it with their friends, many people will upgrade," RealNetworks Chief Executive Officer Rob Glaser said in a statement Tuesday. "We thank our partners in the music industry who worked closely with us to create an innovative...approach that works for both the industry and consumers."

Consumer response to the new service is critical for the company, which has built its broader Net multimedia business around music and downloadable games, and which looks to Rhapsody as the centerpiece of those businesses.

RealNetworks isn't alone in making a high-stakes bet on music. Apple itself has seen its fortunes soar on the back of iPod sales, aided in part by its successful iTunes online music stores. Software company Roxio last year sold all parts of its business not dedicated to online music, and changed its name altogether to Napster, to focus on the music business.

The new release of Rhapsody marks the first time that RealNetworks has substantially revised the program since buying it in April 2003 along with San Francisco company Listen.com. Since that time, the company has seen steady growth, announcing last week that it had 1 million subscribers to its music products, which also include a premium Net radio service.

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Meet the players
Which devices will be compatible with the revamped Rhapsody? Here's a list.

The previous version of Rhapsody, despite its critical plaudits, was more limited than other services in some ways. Based on streaming media technology, it required a computer to be connected to the Internet at all times.

Rival subscription services from Napster and Microsoft allowed downloads of songs, so that they could be played offline.

The new version of Rhapsody allows that kind of ordinary download, but also takes advantage of Microsoft's "Janus" technology, a digital rights management tool that has enabled the

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