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RealNetworks plugs Net video, plays down browsing

As the company talks up the latest version of its RealSystem software, the theme of convergence is never far below the surface.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--As RealNetworks talked up the latest version of its RealSystem software here today, the theme of convergence was never far below the surface.

The company said RealSystem 8 marks a technological breakthrough that will help erode the distinctions between traditional video and Internet video, backing up its statement with the endorsement of film director Francis Ford Coppola and a new consumer opinion survey.

On the audio front, RealNetworks executives demonstrated several radio appliances that combine the traditional look and feel of standalone radios with the vast content choices of the Internet. These audio appliances--equipped with RealJukebox, RealNetworks' music management software--support S3's Rio Digital Audio Receiver, as well as RCA's Lyra, Philips' Rush, and Creative Technology's Nomad.

A growing convergence of Web browser and media player was also apparent in the new system, with the player and jukebox taking on the look, feel and functionality of a browser in crucial, basic respects. Web capabilities new to version 8 include support for HTML forms, scrolling and buttons.

RealNetworks earlier this month said it would incorporate support for Macromedia's Flash animation technology into the software. Before that, the company created a custom player for one of its consulting clients with fairly advanced HTML and Flash rendering capabilities.

In another offering new to version 8, RealPlayer streams MP3 files.

Though the company spent much of the day trumpeting its improvements in compression technology and the devices and prototypes, it downplayed a simultaneous convergence of its player and the Web browser.

RealNetworks has always maintained that it has no designs on the Web browsing market. But its player, and more recently its jukebox, have included more Web page-viewing capabilities with recent iterations.

Today RealNetworks repeated its long-standing position that it would not become an all-in-one browser and media player.

"We're not going to be your Web browser for general-purpose Web browsing," Glaser told the press and analysts after his keynote address.

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Rob Glaser
But analysts question the rationale behind shying from expanding the player's capabilities, pointing out that there is no love lost between RealNetworks and the No. 1 browser provider, Microsoft.

"I think it's strange that they haven't done more sooner" with browsing functionality, said International Data Corp. analyst Malcolm Maclachlan. "Any pretense of staying out of Microsoft's way is long gone. And now that we're essentially down to one browser, and with RealNetworks playing the role of a media portal, the browser metaphor makes more sense for them.

"When you're talking about rich media, that becomes an experience you could really build a browser around," he added.

RealNetworks preferred to pump the enhanced video quality of version 8, developed in concert with chip giant Intel, which it said matches or exceeds video quality on a broadband connection.

Preview versions of RealProducer, an encoder, and RealServer, are available for download. A general release is due in the second half of the year.

The company flaunted the enthusiastic endorsement from Coppola, who presented a clip from his movie "Apocalypse Now" using the version 8 software.

Swimming with sharks Coppola generously praised the software, predicting it would have a profound effect on film as a genre.

"This technology...will ultimately affect what movies are like," the celebrated director told the press and analysts. "It will change the way films are conceived and made."

RealNetworks brandished research it commissioned from a yet-to-be-identified firm that showed that 70 percent of those surveyed found RealVideo 8 viewed over a broadband connection as good as or better than traditional VHS videotape quality.

The research also showed clear consumer preference for its version 8 software over Microsoft's competing Windows Media technology. According to the study, commissioned by RealNetworks, 92 percent of surveyed viewers preferred the RealPlayer 8 to the most current Windows Media player, version 7.

RealNetworks would not identify the study author before publishing the report May 29 but said it was a prominent research firm.

A Microsoft representative said it is difficult to respond to the report without more details, but nevertheless disputed the results.

"Microsoft is not aware of the testing methodology or criteria used to achieve these results," the representative wrote in an email. "Our new Windows Media Technologies 7, which is currently in a closed beta program with our developer partners, offers superior video quality to others in the industry."