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Analyst: RealNetworks could fall victim to Microsoft

Shares of the streaming media company drop after Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget downgrades the stock on concerns the company is losing market share to Microsoft.

    RealNetworks shares dropped 8 percent Wednesday after Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget downgraded the stock on valuation concerns and on recent data suggesting the company is losing market share to Microsoft.

    Blodget cut the streaming media company from "accumulate" to "hold," citing its pricey valuation, around 86 times its projected earnings for 2001, and the growing popularity of Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

    "We continue to believe there is a significant risk that Microsoft will do to RealNetworks what it did to Netscape--take over the market by bundling functionality in larger products and giving it away for free," Blodget wrote in a research note.

    Swimming with sharks RealNetworks shares slid $1 to $11.06 by the 1 p.m. PST close of regular trading; Microsoft gained $2.38, or 4 percent, to $62.94.

    According to Jupiter Media Metrix data, usage of RealNetworks' RealPlayer media streaming software fell 10 percent in the second half of 2000, while Microsoft's Windows Media Player usage increased 30 percent.

    "RealNetworks client software has lost share to Microsoft over the last six months," Blodget said. "This is a major concern--RealPlayer usage drives about 80 percent of revenue, indirectly and directly."

    RealNetworks shares have come under pressure in the past four months, falling from around $30 a share in October to a 52-week low of $5.19 in December. The stock traded as high as $96 a share in February.

    The company's lukewarm third-quarter earnings and reduced outlook for the fourth quarter, especially a projected 20 percent decline in advertising sales, help explain the lack of confidence on Wall Street.

    But Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Heath Terry isn't buying Blodget's Netscape analogy.

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    Glaser not concerned by downgrade
    Rob Glaser, CEO, RealNetworks
    "Microsoft's been doing this for three years, and it still hasn't had any real effect," Terry said. "I'm surprised it still gets brought up. Sure, Microsoft is a competitor, but the dynamics of streaming media are significantly different than those of a browser. I think that's a weak argument."

    Terry, who maintains a "hold" rating on the stock, has another slant on the valuation argument.

    "Valuation depends upon how you want to look at it," he said. "With any technology stock these days, it's a moving target.

    "In the near term, it's trading at a high multiple, but if you look far enough out, you can make the argument that the stock is undervalued relative to the future potential of the technology and the company."

    Justin Post, an analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex Brown, said that although Microsoft is making inroads, it's too early to draw definitive conclusions about the stock.

    "RealNetworks is going through an adjustment period right now from dot-com customers to more traditional clients," he said. "We aren't seeing a lot of traction in this area at this point. But RealNetworks still has double the number of users using its player each month than Microsoft."

    In December, RealNetworks warned that it would miss analysts' profit estimates by 2 cents a share, mainly because of slumping advertising sales.

    First Call consensus now expects it to earn 2 cents a share in its fourth quarter on sales of $61 million, down from a profit of $7.6 million, or 4 cents a share, on sales of $67.1 million in the third quarter.

    RealNetworks will report its fourth-quarter results Jan. 30.

    Fifteen of the 26 analysts tracking the stock rate it a "buy" or "strong buy."