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Microsoft catching up to RealNetworks?

Microsoft is gaining ground on RealNetworks in the digital media player market, as consumers increasingly turn to multiple products to download music and video from the Internet, a survey says.

Microsoft is gaining ground on RealNetworks in the digital media player market, as consumers increasingly turn to multiple products to download music and video from the Internet, according to a survey released today by PC Data Online.

"Real is clearly winning," said Howard Dyckovsky, PC Data's vice president of operations. "The question is whether they will continue to do so."

The Reston, Virginia-based Web measurement firm reported that between September and October, Microsoft's Windows Media Player had the fastest growth rate among the top three media players, with a 34 percent usage increase month over month. RealNetworks' RealPlayer followed with 5.3 percent growth in use, while use of Apple Computer's QuickTime product declined over the same period by 7.7 percent.

In addition, the report indicated that so-called jukebox software, which allows users to organize and play digital music on a PC, has been slow to catch on. Fewer than 23 percent of consumers who use media players also use jukebox software, and only about nine percent of all Web users have installed the software.

Kevin Unangst, lead product manager for Microsoft's streaming media division, praised the survey, calling it "the first accurate look at what people are using, what people are playing every day...The numbers paint a different picture than what RealNetworks would like people to believe."

But RealNetworks said the study was misleading.

"Every metric we use demonstrates our continued leadership, including the recent Media Metrix numbers that put our Web sites in the top 10 most popular for last month," said Thomas Frank, RealNetworks' chief operating officer.

"For example, our latest player has the strongest uptake of any of our products beating our own previous records (3 million in a week) and a user base over 88 million...Not to mention the fact that more than 90 percent of streaming media pages are in RealNetworks format," he added.

According to the survey, much of Windows Media's growth came from consumers doubling up on the media players they use.

The survey reported that 41 percent of households with Internet access used media players at least once in the month. In addition, consumers who accessed digital media content on the Internet used an average of two different players during October. This is an increase from the use of 1.6 players per month in September.

RealPlayer is used by an average eight out of 10 consumers, while Windows Media Player is used by an average six out of 10. The QuickTime Player is used by an average of three out of 10 users.

"People have no brand awareness," said Dyckovsky, referring to a separate study PC Data conducted two months ago. "Both Windows Media and RealPlayer are installed directly on a lot of machines, and people don't have to do anything to set them up."

Dyckovsky said the survey results were largely affected by default settings on Web sites. Some sites automatically launch Windows Media when a user tries to download music or videos, while others launch RealPlayer.

"Microsoft's challenge will be to convince more Web sites to make Windows Media the default," he said.

According to PC Data Online, today's report provides the first data available that examines the entire spectrum of household Web use of digital media, including use of digital media players, jukeboxes and embedded streaming audio and video within Web pages.

The study was conducted by tracking a random sample of 3,000 Internet users who used digital media players in September and October. The data was weighted to represent U.S. Internet users as a whole.