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No updated Real software on WebTV

The streaming firm says WebTV's relationship with Microsoft is responsible for the lapse, but the set-top firm cites other reasons.

The newest version of the most popular audio software on the Net is another feature users can't get on their WebTV.

WebTV users cannot access a significant portion of audio content on the Internet developed using technology from RealNetworks, a situation some say could be a result of the set-top box maker's alliance with Microsoft.

In what may simply be another case of coincidental timing, WebTV has declined to support the three latest versions of RealNetworks' RealAudio. Prior to its acquisition by Microsoft, WebTV supported each successive version of RealAudio. Since the buyout, Real says no meaningful discussions have taken place to work on integrating the latest versions of RealAudio into WebTV boxes.

In the face of internal marketing research and informal subscriber surveys indicating users want WebTV to begin supporting new versions of RealAudio or some format of streaming audio and video, company executives argue that their options are limited by the low price point of the WebTV box when choosing what Web technologies to support.

"We continue to have a strong relationship with the RealAudio guys...We want to be as compatible with as many things as we possibly can be," said Steve Perlman, cofounder and president of WebTV, denying that WebTV's technology decisions are influenced by Microsoft. "If it's out there as a standard we would like to support it."

But in a scenario similar to WebTV's decision to shelve plans to support Java, the company seems to have quietly abandoned its relationship with RealNetworks, a company whose chief executive has been vocal in his criticism of Microsoft, including accusations that Microsoft intentionally tweaked its own media player so that it would not work with RealAudio.

RealAudio is a format that allows Web developers to include streaming audio, and in later versions, streaming video, on their sites. Streaming allows users to get live video and audio feeds over the Web.

WebTV users cannot access audio or video from sites developed using later versions of RealAudio, according to RealNetworks.

"Basically, how it works is any file that is [created] in RealAudio 3.0 or earlier, it would play [on WebTV]," said Matt Hulett, group product manager for RealNetworks. On sites using "anything after RealAudio 3.0, you would get a dialog box telling you to upgrade," but because WebTV does not support later versions of RealAudio, subscribers are effectively locked out, Hulett said. "It's too bad for consumers."

Real Audio has 85 to 90 percent market share, Hulett said, with most of those sites developed using the newest RealAudio 5.0 or G2 players. WebTV users cannot access any of that audio content, he said.

Throughout 1995 and 1996, WebTV appeared to be on track with RealNetworks, supporting both RealAudio 1.0 and 2.0 by the end of 1996, according to WebTV. Support for Real Audio 3.0 was announced by WebTV on June 16, 1997. Microsoft completed its $425 million acquisition of WebTV on August 1, 1997.

Although three new versions of RealAudio have been released in the time since--RealAudio 4.0, 5.0, and G2--WebTV has made no moves to support any of these new formats.

There are no significant technical issues precluding the three latest versions of RealAudio from working with WebTV, Hulett said.

WebTV would like to support later versions of RealAudio, Perlman said, but it must test such applications extensively because people expect a higher level of reliability from their television than from their PC. "There's a lot more work that goes into supporting a new version--a lot of work," Perlman said.

"We have to have a system that doesn't crash, and that takes an incredible amount of debugging and testing," he said. "PC users accept a certain level of unreliability, but the TV user has a different expectation."

Real's Hulett says that no work has begun to make RealAudio 4.0, 5.0, or G2 compatible with future or current versions of WebTV.

"We've definitely had conversations with them post-3.0," Hulett said, but there are currently no ongoing discussions with WebTV to support newer versions of RealAudio. "We had a really good relationship in the early days, and we would love to include the newest Real system technology into WebTV. It's their decision."