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RealNetworks urges new standard

The streaming firm, embroiled in a battle with Microsoft, says more than 20 companies support its call for software file formats.

    SEATTLE--RealNetworks, embroiled in a battle with Microsoft over whether the giant's software "breaks" RealNetwork's audio and video player, said today that more than 20 companies are supporting a call for new file format standards.

    The initiative, an effort to make a bug tit-for-tat a broad industry issue, seeks to establish ways to tell users when software being installed on their PCs conflicts with what's already on the machine.

    "Consumers have a right to know what is being done when they install software on their computer," RealNetworks chief executive Rob Glaser said today in an interview with CNET News.com. "We in the industry should pledge to tell consumers what they're being asked to do--it's a pure win."

    The expected move comes during the latest battle between the two companies, a fight that entered the public limelight last week when Glaser told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Microsoft's Windows Media Player "breaks" RealNetworks' RealPlayer software.

    Microsoft fired back, blaming a RealPlayer bug, not its own streaming utility. Today, Redmond also criticized the compatibility initiative.

    "This appears to be a little bit of a smoke screen for RealNetworks to shift the debate a little bit off what happened in the Senate," Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn said.

    In addition, RealNetworks today posted what Glaser called "a minor update" to its G2 streaming media software, still in beta. The updated G2 software cannot be disabled by Microsoft's software.

    The RealNetworks update to its G2 beta software was prepared in part with Microsoft engineers. "We got word from Microsoft that if we followed that approach, it wouldn't disable our software," Glaser said.

    A former Microsoft employee, Glaser has steadfastly denied that the original problem was the result of a RealPlayer bug. However, two labs that have tested for the snag say that RealNetworks' claims were not entirely supported by the facts and that RealNetworks may have reacted too rashly.

    The streaming firm today joined the call for new standards, announcing that it is one of many software companies to support a program for "Ask, Tell, & Help: Fair Practices and Conventions for handling file formats in the Era of the Internet."

    NetManage, which has knocked heads with Microsoft in the past, is involved in the new initiative. It also includes players such as the following: Netscape Communications, Novell, Sun Microsystems, 7th Level, Cowon, MpegTV, MusicMatch, and Spinner.com.

    Glaser said Microsoft was approached by Novell about joining the effort but could not reach a decision before today's press release.

    Sohn at Microsoft said he received the principles just a few hours before they were released.

    He criticized the principles, saying "they were thrown together way too quickly and take a very narrow view of a much larger issue--and that is how applications interact with each other on a system over time.

    "As a company, Microsoft is completely committed to making sure applications work with Windows and with each other," Sohn added. "We spend a lot of time and resources working closely with developers to make sure they have the tools they need to write great applications for Windows customers. We think this issue is best handled in the operating system and we have literally hundreds of people working with this."

    The group is proposing a set of conventions and principles that it says would give consumers "a consistent experience for deciding which software is their preferred choice for reading, processing, or managing files in the age of the Internet," according to a statement posted on RealNetworks' site, but officially issued by NetManage.

    As reported yesterday, the Software Publishers Association is considering holding a meeting this summer to discuss the same guidelines. Glaser said the SPA or the World Wide Web Consortium might become the center of a standards effort, but a W3C spokesman said it has not yet been approached.

    Though the initiative's statement does not explicitly mention Microsoft, it clearly comes in response to the controversy.

    Glaser said the problems of incompatibilities and disabling other software have grown because many users now download software from the Net. Disabling features hit streaming media companies particularly hard, he added, noting that about half the signatories for today's initiative create or play different types of media.

    "It's less likely that third parties will either knowingly or unknowingly disable another company's product without end-user buy-in," Bill Moline, president of LiveUpdate, said in the statement. "Instead of spending valuable programming and support time protecting and reinstating playback of data types, we can focus on building better consumer products."

    Part of the "Fair Practices and Conventions principles" in the statement cover three areas: "Asking users' permission before becoming the preferred software that reads or writes a particular type of file, telling users if there are any limitations to how the files are read or written, and helping users by providing them with information on how they can find other software that reads that type of file without limitation."

    "The group also pledged to work together to implement a vendor-neutral, industrywide program to ensure that these principles are put into practice," the statement continues.

    RealNetworks' stock, which has been in a free-fall since the announcement, was up 9.05 percent today, closing at 31.625.

    News.com's Tim Clark reported from Seattle with Janet Kornblum in San Francisco.