My parents’ desktop computer has RealPlayer installed, which, for the record, I didn’t put there. I decided to update it to the latest version today, and it reminded me of why I usually steer well clear of it.
We’re going to pretend we’re Joe User for one moment. Joe is a UK citizen, who pays his TV License fee, and wants to listen to one of the BBC’s audio streams. He has a relatively new computer running Windows XP SP2. This computer ships with Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, which is a good all-round media player, but it is incompatible with RealMedia streams.
We’ll assume that Joe asks a slightly more knowledgable friend why the audio doesn’t work and his friend tells him he needs to download a program called ‘RealPlayer’. He goes to Google, types in ‘realplayer’ and clicks on the first result –.
The home page isn’t exactly helpful. The obvious links in the middle of the page are trying to sell Joe Real’s premium service – all Joe wants to do is play some BBC audio streams that he has already paid for through his license fee and doesn’t want any of this premium nonsense. It turns out that he has to click on the ‘RealPlayer’ link in the top left, which takes him to this page.
Again, this tries to sell him a premium product, though at least the free version is still reasonably prominent on the right-hand side. He downloads the player, and chooses to install it.
During the install, he’s asked all sorts of questions – does he want desktop and quick launch icons? He’s also asked if he wants to make RealPlayer his default player, or whether he wants to set options manually, with the first option selected by default. Joe has never used RealPlayer before, so although the installer is recommending this, he isn’t sure whether to trust it because he has had no experience with using it – what if it’s awful? He’s already had problems navigating Real’s web site – is the software going to be equally as awkward? Of course, selecting the second option leads to bewildering array of options, so Joe just skips this screen. This isn’t good because Joe has no idea what he’s agreeing to in doing so.
Joe’s then asked for a username and password, or asked to register with real.com. Joe doesn’t really understand why this is needed – all he wanted to do is play an episode of The News Quiz. He didn’t expect to have to give his personal details over to some third party that he knew nothing about until a few minutes ago. So he clicks Cancel, and the program loads.
The main screen appears, and Joe is once again asked for a username and password. Again he clicks cancel. The main screen is mostly occupied by what seems to be a web page – but surely this is a media player, not a web browser? Joe already has one of those. Joe already has a fully-functional media player, yet he seems to have downloaded another one. He also finds the fact that the menu bar is on the right of the screen confusing – normally it’s on the left.
I could go on, but this should show that there are some major failings in the user experience. I would bet money that the majority of people who download RealPlayer do so because they want to view some multimedia content and a compatible player isn’t already installed for them to use. They don’t want to sign up for some premium service, or have some all-singing, all-dancing media library software installed – they already have one after all.
I’m not saying that RealPlayer is unnecessary in its current form – I’m sure some people like it – but that it’s not fit for most users. They should be able to download some kind of add-in for Windows Media Player that let them play back media in a familiar environment, and not have to learn a new and confusing interface, have to answer lots of questions and pay money for something they probably don’t want. Sure, keep the normal RealPlayer, but also have some kind of RealPlayer Lite for everyone else, and make it prominent.
Thankfully it isn’t all doom and gloom. The BBC offer a slightly less intrusive version of RealPlayer from their web site, and Real Alternative lets you avoid installing RealPlayer altogether and bundles a nice light player too. But these aren’t so well known solutions.
Update: About four years after this was written, I got rid of RealPlayer completely and haven’t looked back.