Next week at the D Mobile technology conference, Real Networks will demonstrate its first new major consumer product in a long time, a cross-platform media management service. The as-yet unnamed product is in two parts: software that consumers run on their computers and mobile devices that will watch for new content they store on them; and a Web service that can collect that media and stream or load it to any of the devices the consumer owns.
Real's new-since-January CEO Robert Kimball believes that this product will address a major pain point for consumers and bring Real back to the public eye after years of decline. But he was clear with me that Real's consumer-facing media player (remember that?) accounts for less than a tenth of the company's business and that he doesn't expect a major boost from the new service. Currently, the bulk of Real's business is in its gaming platform, its licensing of technology, and, primarily (37 percent of revenues) the back-end and white-label service Real provides to wireless carriers. But even there, Real has a lot more potential than market: about 38 million mobile subscribers use Real-developed online services, out of a potential addressable market of 700 million people, Kimball says.
Kimball says Real has no intention of competing with Apple to build a media store, even though it does provide media store technology and services to carriers that they pitch under their own brands. In fact, Kimball says, the media aggregation service will make iTunes and other media stores more valuable to consumers by enabling them to move their content around to all the devices they have, no matter what technology platforms they're using (except for all-Apple users; Kimball admits people who live completely in the Apple cocoon don't need an aggregator).
The service will handle music, videos, and photos. It will respect digital rights and not enable streaming of protected content (in other words, movies and TV shows), but it will make it much easier to move music files and playlists between devices. The first version will focus on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) and computers. Future versions may work with living-room devices like digital video recorders and game consoles. Also not in the launch version is support for users' subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix or Pandora. The service will work with media files you own, not rights to stream.
Keeping in mind that we haven't yet had a demo of the product, it sounds like a reasonable and potentially useful product to help consumers tame their media archives, although with important gaps in coverage. It could, if Real sticks with it, bring the company back to public awareness. When I said to Kimball that there's a whole generation of technology users that have never heard of Real, he said, "I view that as a good thing, because we get a chance to make a first impression." It has in fact been that long since Real has been a major player (sorry) on the consumer's desktop.
But without some potential for revenue generation (and by that I mean actually selling media, not pay-for-cloud-storage fees, which I don't think will add up), this is not going to move the needle much for Real's bottom line.