Services & Software

AOL debuts its own streaming tech

America Online launches a broadband radio service that showcases Ultravox, a streaming media technology quietly developed by the Web giant itself. What will it mean to RealNetworks?

America Online unveiled on Monday a high-speed radio service, showcasing a new media-delivery technology that the company has quietly developed for use within its network.

The launch of Broadband Radio@AOL marks the online giant's first live run on its network for the technology, called Ultravox. The online service aims to deliver CD-quality songs to subscribers who access it via a high-speed connection.

The Ultravox launch could have repercussions beyond the company, particularly for partner RealNetworks, which in the past was the sole provider of streaming technology used on AOL's radio service. AOL will continue to use RealNetworks' technology for dial-up online radio products on AOL, on the Netscape Web site and through its Spinner product.

AOL may find further uses for its in-house technology down the road. While the company remains mum about its plans for Ultravox, it's considering various ways to use Ultravox for other multimedia areas in AOL. Kevin Conroy, senior vice president of AOL Music, said building Broadband Radio@AOL on Ultravox technology was a move to improve quality.

"We had an objective up front," Conroy said in an interview. "We wanted to reduce player load time, in-stream rebuffering and dead air between songs while delivering better sound quality."

The Broadband Radio@AOL launch comes as AOL and its chief rivals, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo, are trying to promote high-speed Net access in the home.

AOL Time Warner executives have hinted that the company plans to entice customers to broadband access services by offering them exclusive content. The company hopes Broadband Radio@AOL will add momentum to these efforts.

Offering new high-speed services on AOL has been a priority for AOL Time Warner executives. The AOL division has seen its online advertising revenue plummet, compounded by stalled subscriber growth. AOL executives are planning to unveil a strategic overhaul of the division's business and broadband strategy Dec. 3.

Ultravox was originally developed by a pool of AOL engineers that included some founding members of Nullsoft, the media software company acquired by AOL in 1999. Nullsoft engineers created the popular MP3 playback software Winamp, and have developed other cutting-edge software such as "Wasabi," which can be programmed and can run on multiple operating systems such as Windows and Linux.

Ultravox runs on data-switching hardware from Extreme Networks. AOL's Conroy said there are no immediate plans to sell the package in the open market, but he did not rule out the possibility.

"We've been approached by a number of companies expressing interest in our Ultravox platform, and we're looking at various options. But we don't have any current plans," Conroy said.