The company is aiming the software in its RealSystem Media Commerce Suite at media companies and retailers that want to deliver music, movies and other copyrighted material securely over the Web. The software can be tied into existing systems for delivery of digital content.
RealNetworks also introduced an initiative to provide a common, open standard--called XMCL, for Extensible Media Commerce Language--that would enable the content to be played on systems from different providers of digital entertainment. Supporters include media and technology notables such as IBM, Napster, InterTrust, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment and Sun Microsystems.
The moves are likely to heighten the already intense competition between RealNetworks and Microsoft, both of which distribute technology that allows consumers to watch videos or listen to music over the Web.
RealNetworks is "enlisting allies to help them fight this audio-video war against Microsoft, and by forming this consortium they're trying to force Microsoft to fight a multifront war," said Mark Mooradian, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix. "The whole idea of getting this consortium together is that a lot of the partners are the usual suspects of Redmond's enemies."
Microsoft countered Wednesday with its own set of announcements. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant unveiled Microsoft Producer, a system that lets people incorporate Windows Media audio and video technology into their business presentations. In addition, the company said it will begin highlighting how media and entertainment companies such as EMI Recorded Music, Viacom's CBS NewsPath and Lions Gate Entertainment are using its Windows Media digital rights management system.
RealNetworks plans to use its new system to provide the security for MusicNet, its joint venture with major record labels owned by AOL Time Warner and German media giant Bertelsmann. MusicNet lets music fans search for, then legally download or stream, a broad range of music owned by the partner labels.
The control of copyrighted materials online falls into the realm of digital rights management, which will play an increasingly important role as online music becomes more popular with consumers. Content producers such as record labels and movie studios have generally acknowledged the Internet as a new way to sell and distribute their works.
But the lack of safeguards preventing the unwanted dissemination of their works has made content providers more conscious of copyright abuses on the Internet. Thus, many content companies have proceeded slowly, waiting for a sufficient way to secure their works.
Another point of contention
For RealNetworks and Microsoft, which continue to bump heads in competing for customers, digital rights management has become another battlefield. Both companies want their technology to become the standard for distributing and playing music online.
"Whoever creates the software that's easiest to use, or the software that makes the whole process more seamless both for the distributor and the consumer, is going to win," said Idil Cakim, an analyst at Cyber Dialogue.
Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy looks at why RealNetworks says that its new distribution system for digital content is a win-win proposition for both consumers and copyright holders.
The Seattle-based software maker also has been teaming with other companies including Cisco Systems and Intel as part of efforts to recruit more corporate customers and bolster revenue. Cisco plans to sell RealNetworks' video and audio software to its business customers.
Included in the new system from RealNetworks are applications that help prepare content for streaming and download delivery, authenticate and secure licenses, and provide a recovery tool for lost licenses. The company said the system is compatible with other digital rights management systems, enabling support for an array of business plans, including subscription-based delivery, video-on-demand and rental.
The XMCL proposal envisions a way for digital content to be played independently of rights management systems and codecs. Codecs are the mathematical codes that compress large audio files into smaller, more usable packages that can be streamed or downloaded over the Web.
RealNetworks said it intends to submit the XMCL proposal to a standards organization and to work with other partners to ensure widespread acceptance.