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Real looks to tame media player circus

RealNetworks introduces a new digital media player that supports all the major file formats. Can the "universal" RealOne put the company on equal footing with Windows Media?

RealNetworks on Tuesday introduced a new digital media player that supports all the major file formats and expanded its subscription programming to include college sports.

The Seattle-based company launched a "universal" media player, called RealOne, which will stream audio and video files compressed in all the dominant formats, including MP3, Windows Media and QuickTime MPEG-4, as well as 50 others. In addition, the latest player gives consumers the ability to mix music playlists, burn CDs or play DVDs from their desktops. The advancements, including universal playback features, cost consumers $19.95 or are available free to RealOne SuperPass subscribers, who pay roughly $9.95 per month.

In a play to amass more subscribers, RealNetworks also bolstered programming for RealOne SuperPass by offering live audio broadcasts of college sports in partnership with the College Sports Network, which previously held a deal with Yahoo.

RealNetworks? media-agnostic player comes on the heels of the introduction of Helix, the company's open-source answer to the multimedia server market. In late July, RealNetworks released significant parts of its technology to the open-source development organization called Helix to give developers of devices and applications more freedom to build support for Real's formats.

RealNetworks is opening its arms to various formats in an effort to create a more convenient player for consumers, who often operate rival players from Microsoft and Apple Computer to play files encoded in Windows Media and QuickTime. That consumers can play the various media in one platform is quintessential, analysts say.

"It?s a real win for the consumers because it means that they no longer need to be concerned about how the media is formatted," IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said.

Real's advancements are the latest in an industry bubbling over with progress. Earlier this month, AOL Time Warner updated its popular Winamp MP3 player with new video capabilities. And earlier this summer, Apple introduced a new version of its player supporting the latest compression standard MPEG-4. Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is set to launch a new test version of its Windows Media Player on Sept. 4.

Real's biggest competition, Windows Media, is automatically ingratiated with a wide audience because Microsoft's Windows, the most widely used operating system, uses Windows Media as its default media player. Analysts say Real's latest player may give it equal footing with Microsoft in coming months because for the software giant's latest release, Windows Media 9, consumers will have to update their players.

By supporting various formats, RealNetworks aims to broaden popularity for its player.

"How good would TV be if you had to have three sets that play different channels?" said Larry Jacobson, RealNetworks' president and COO. "This is one place to see whatever you want in whatever format you want to see it."

At the same time, RealNetworks is eager to grow subscribers for its RealOne SuperPass, which has about 750,000 paying customers. For roughly $9.95 per month, subscribers can access audio and video broadcasts from CNN, FoxSports.com, Major League Baseball and NASCAR.

With its announcement, the company propped up its subscription programming in a perpetual plea for new customers. Now consumers can subscribe to a radio-only service called RadioPass, available later this week, for $5.95 per month. RealOne SuperPass subscribers can add the radio service at higher bit rates for $3 extra per month. The service includes an expanded number of radio stations, to more than 3,200, and lets people see which songs are playing on various channels without changing stations. It features a popular West Coast radio station, KPIG, which was previously free on the Net but went dark in July because of costly royalty rates.

RealNetworks also signed a multiyear deal with the Official College Sports Networks to play live audio broadcasts of sporting events, including college football, basketball and baseball, at more than 45 top colleges and universities. Consumers can subscribe to the service, called College SportsPass, for $6.95 a month, or for an extra $4 per month add it onto a SuperPass membership.

The advancements come a week after RealNetworks named Merrill Brown, former editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com, as senior vice president overseeing subscription services.

The universal player compliments Helix and is part of overall strategy to support all media technology, and ultimately win market share. "This is the answer song to Helix," said RealNetworks' Jacobson. "There?s great efficiency for people who are invested in moving bits along the Internet in having a universal server."

Analysts say that RealNetworks could have a winning strategy, but it will be a tight race.

"It's an exciting time to watch this," said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research. "This is an open ball game right now, and it's not clear that any one player in any one format in the short term will become dominant. The next six months will be interesting as these companies wage a battle for the hearts and minds of consumers."