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RealNetworks show to go on

The company is going ahead with an industry conference in Seattle next week, offering live streaming coverage of the event for those reluctant to attend after last week's attacks.

RealNetworks said Tuesday that it would go ahead with a planned industry conference in Seattle next week, offering live Internet streaming coverage of the event for those unwilling or unable to attend in person after last week's terrorist attacks.

RealNetworks said it would charge $199.95 to view conference events over the Web, compared with $1,295 for those who travel to the event.

The decision to stage RealConference 2001 on schedule comes amid numerous cancellations of technology events, including Apple Computer's Expo. Companies cited several factors in postponing events, including respect for the victims, heightened security risks and chaotic travel conditions.

By broadcasting its event live over the Net and storing the footage for later viewing, RealNetworks hopes not only to provide convenience but also to showcase the corporate benefits of streaming technology as a cheap alternative to travel.

Last week's attacks sparked a surge of interest in technology that enables workers to interact remotely. Video-conferencing companies such as Polycom, ACT Teleconferencing, Wire One Technologies and MCSi posted rare gains Monday. RealNetworks and other streaming-media providers have not seen a similar updraft, however. RealNetworks shares closed down 22 cents, or 5 percent, at $4.58 Tuesday.

Analysts said companies are finding some uses for streaming technology: Investor meetings and earnings announcements are frequently made available to the public over the Net, and executive speeches are commonly broadcast within companies using streaming products. But they said streaming is not directly comparable to features offered by video-conferencing companies.

"A lot of people are talking about video conferencing today, but it's never been really successful," said John Corcoran, an analyst at CIBC World Markets. "Companies aren't interested in setting up cameras so employees can watch each other's lips move while they talk. What's gotten people excited are things like the ability to share a PowerPoint presentation or an Excel spreadsheet."

Known primarily for consumer products that play music and video files on PCs, RealNetworks is working to diversify its businesses to offset the dot-com implosion. Many of the company's Web-entertainment customers have recently closed or retrenched, in a wipeout that hit RealNetworks' bottom line.

In July, the company laid off 140 employees, or 15 percent of its staff, after missing its earnings expectations for the second quarter. At the same time, it lost Chief Financial Officer Paul Bialek, who stepped down citing personal reasons.

Among other things, RealNetworks is hoping corporate services will shape up as a bright spot in the badly damaged streaming arena.

"Enterprises across the board are looking to save money, and the idea of using streaming media for delivering effective communication has come into its own," said Ben Rotholtz, general manager of products and systems at RealNetworks.

Rotholtz said the company has long offered corporate streaming products, including Real Presenter, which allows customers to capture and annotate PowerPoint presentations. He added that corporate training and executive broadcasts are both increasingly popular with corporate customers.

As in other markets, RealNetworks faces competition from Microsoft, which has also targeted corporate streaming customers for years. Microsoft's soon-to-be-released operating system upgrade, Windows XP, comes bundled with some document-sharing features and video-conferencing capabilities.

CIBC's Corcoran said he wouldn't rule out the long-term potential of corporate streaming services, but for now, he said, RealNetworks' key strength continues to lie in its consumer products.

Corcoran said the company's paid programming service, called GoldPass, is "an important proof of concept...It shows that someone is able to aggregate multimedia content online and make money at it."

RealNetworks said about 300,000 subscribers pay $9.95 a month for access to sports programming that includes Major League Baseball audio broadcasts. The company is also shortly expected to announce the launch of a paid music-subscription service through MusicNet, a joint venture with record-label owners AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and EMI Recorded Music.

Details about that service could be made public at RealConference next week, although a RealNetworks representative declined to comment on any upcoming announcements.