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WebTV turnaround on Real Audio

WebTV reveals that it will support some popular Internet multimedia technologies it just recently deemed too unwieldy for the low-cost set-top box.

    In what appears to be an about-face, WebTV has revealed that it will support some popular Internet multimedia technologies it just recently deemed too unwieldy for the low-cost set-top box.

    But questions remain about ongoing business relationships with some of its parent company's competitors.

    WebTV, which offers an online service for low-priced set-top boxes, came under fire from its subscribers after it was reported last month that the company was shelving plans to support popular Web technologies like Sun Microsystems' PersonalJava and later versions of Real Networks' Real Audio media player, which plays back Internet-based audio and video.

    Some critics speculated that WebTV's development decisions were influenced by its parent company, Microsoft, which has engaged in very public legal disputes with both companies. WebTV president Steve Perlman, for his part, insisted that support for these applications was impeded by technical constraints, not meddling by Microsoft.

    "I had hoped they would revisit this?it doesn't surprise me that now that the stink's been raised that they're rethinking the decision," said Sean Kaldor, an International Data Corporation analyst, noting that the timing of the decision to discontinue support for the technologies raised some eyebrows. "There was enough of a perception that they happened to [make the decisions] right when Microsoft was in the middle of these battles."

    Last week, in response to ongoing questions and complaints from WebTV subscribers in a WebTV online forum, Perlman posted a message to WebTV users indicating that the company is on track to begin supporting the latest version of Real Audio on both its WebTV Classic and Plus boxes next year, and is looking to support Java on its WebTV Plus set-top box as well.

    "It was more impromptu than planned," Perlman said today of the decision to post a message to the newsgroup, hoping to allay users' concerns. WebTV will rollout support for Real Audio 5 next year, Perlman promised, explaining that the company has developed a method of translating Real Audio's data streams to a simpler format.

    Additionally, he is "cautiously optimistic" that by next year, WebTV developers will find a way to support Java on the WebTV Plus set-top boxes, which offer more memory than the lower-priced WebTV Classic.

    "If the system is able to handle it, it would be a potential PR nightmare for WebTV. What it will say is that Microsoft's ownership outweighs their dedication to the customer," said Jae Kim, an analyst with Paul Kagen and Associates.

    "We re-assessed priorities...Probably, we should have done Real Audio sooner--it seems like it's something people want," Perlman said in an interview. Regarding Java he said that "there's no question that Java is useful--what it does, it does well. People are asking for this, and we want to accommodate them if we physically can."

    But Real Networks, which confirmed last week that discussions with WebTV about support for Real Audio 5 dropped off after the Microsoft acquisition, would not comment on Perlman's assertion that WebTV will support Real Audio 5.

    "It's a little premature to go into the state of the relationship," said Phil Barrett, senior vice president of media technologies, explaining that the company does not comment on ongoing negotiations.

    "It should be no surprise to anyone that we're pretty interested in helping WebTV deliver streaming media to their customers, but it's a little early for us to comment on our relationship. We talk to a lot of companies all the time," Barrett said.

    'High-tech courting rituals'
    Kim believes that WebTV will follow through on its promise to support the streaming technology. "It's another one of those weird high-tech courting rituals," he said. "WebTV, despite its ownership by Microsoft, realizes that to best serve its customers, it needs to support the Real technology."

    As for PersonalJava, WebTV is developing some solutions in-house that would allow WebTV Plus users to access Java applets, Perlman said. "We have found what we think to be some means to achieve a low-memory version of Java," he said, noting that PersonalJava requires more memory than WebTV affords.

    WebTV has developed a smaller prototype version of PersonalJava that is running Java applets with success on WebTV Plus set-top boxes, but the next obstacle is receiving licensing approval from Sun for such a limited version. "One of the things that Sun has been emphatic about is that they want to secure a level of compatibility across platforms," Perlman said. "That's why this has been a tricky thing to do."

    "They're going to run into issues because if it's 'toned-down Java,' it's not Java," Kaldor said. "They're always balancing this tightrope--they're trapped in a hard area between the Internet, which is moving along a million miles per hour, and the consumer electronics world, which revs every two years."

    Sun could not be reached for comment.

    WebTV is wise to work to support both Java and Real Audio, Kim said. "To deliberately not support technology because of a rivalry would be 100 percent counter-productive," he concluded.