The agreement could end a long-standing controversy, or at least serve to temporarily placate WebTV customers. WebTV--a TV set-top box and related service that provides Internet access through television--has been criticized both by its subscribers and outside observers for failing to support some multimedia technologies, including the latest version of RealAudio and Java-enabled features.
These popular technologies are frequently found on Web sites that WebTV gives users access to. But in-demand content--such as Internet radio broadcasts that use Real's technology--has been unavailable to WebTV users.
But it's still not a complete audio/video package. Streaming video broadcasts that require Real's technology, such as those available on news sites like CNN, will still not be available to WebTV users, however, RealNetworks said.
The controversy has been heightened by the fact that Microsoft, which owns WebTV, has had ugly fights with Real Networks and Sun regarding the technologies. Real Networks's audio format is the main competitor to Microsoft's own audio technology, Windows Media Player.
Today's agreement comes just weeks after WebTV unveiled its new WebTV Plus and Classic TV set-top boxes, which include upgrades to the service. But, much to the chagrin of many users, WebTV confirmed at that time that the new boxes would still not be compatible with the most current versions of RealNetworks' RealAudio streaming media player.
Late last year, in response to complaints from users, former president and co-founder Steve Perlman promised subscribers support for RealAudio in the 1999 generation of the WebTV hardware. He maintained that the memory requirements for Java were still too taxing to implement in its current format. Perlman has since left the company.
For its part, WebTV had asserted that the limited memory capacity of its set-top box presented technical challenges in implementing any additional features. Adding more memory would raise the cost of the box, WebTV argued. Even those limitations weren't delaying development of Windows Media Player and RealAudio, a WebTV spokesman said last month.
Technical issues clearly rank high among the reasons for the delays in adopting the technology, but many observers believe that political issues have been a factor as well. Microsoft's role in determining the direction of WebTV has been on the rise, sources say, and has resulted in shifts in strategy, possibly including Perlman's departure from the firm.
Sources within WebTV confirm that Microsoft's relationships with both Sun and Real Networks is a factor. Last month, a WebTV source said: "Ever since WebTV was purchased by Microsoft, Real Audio has been hesitant to do anything with us. Negotiations are difficult, because there's not a lot of trust."
In today's deal, WebTV said that Seattle-based RealNetworks will provide an upgrade of existing WebTV products to support the latest RealAudio G2, a format that allows Web developers to include streaming audio on their sites to get live audio feeds over the Web.
Focus on Windows CE
Additionally, RealNetworks is also developing a version of its RealPlayer G2 for the Windows CE operating system, allowing WebTV to incorporate RealPlayer G2 support in its future products that connect to the WebTV network service, the two companies said.
"We think a relationship around RealAudio, and that by porting G2 to Windows CE, that paves the way to talk about other technologies like video," said Len Jordan, senior vice president of media systems for RealNetworks.
Not only that, but the path to offering Real's streaming technology on other Windows CE devices such as handhelds and cable set-top boxes is improved, Jordan said. However, any such plans would require separate agreements with Microsoft.
Currently, the WebTV device runs on a proprietary operating system; the company plans to eventually use Microsoft's Windows CE operating system in the newest WebTV set-tops, as well as products such as the satellite TV receiver being sold by Echostar.
WebTV said it intends to provide RealAudio G2 support to its subscribers via a service upgrade later this year as well.
Microsoft also today said its Windows Media Player, including video capabilities, will be added to WebTV by the end of the year, according to Reuters.