Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

A Real load of Apples

By now you’ll probably know about Real Networks’ Freedom of Music Choice site, which in turn promotes the RealPlayer Music Store which allows you to download music that will play on all manner of digital music players. The controversial bit is that it also supports the iPod, which means that instead of only being able to buy music from the iTunes Music Store, iPod owners can now also buy music from Real.
This is all very well so far, but to be able to support Apple’s proprietary FairPlay DRM technology, Real had to reverse engineer the files produced by iTMS to find out how to create files themselves. Apple previously refused to license the technology to Real, presumably to protect their own investments, so Real went their way alone. And naturally, the Mac Mafia have been up in arms accusing Real of all manner of dirty tricks.
Sure, Real have a dodgy past – I personally find RealPlayer to still be a steaming pile of bloatware and as such use Real Alternative to play back RealMedia-encoded files. But what they’re doing is a good thing – giving consumers more choice. They even lowered the minimum price of some of their downloads to 49c – half what Apple charge. And yet there’s a whole swathe of criticism aimed at them for doing that. It’s like a reformed criminal doing you a favour and all you do in return is kick him in the tender areas.
And while it wasn’t somehow widely reported, a majority of consumers think that Real is right to offer iPod owners more choice. Many are unaware that the music brought from the majority of online music stores won’t play back on an iPod, despite it being the market leader.
Oh, and in other news, last Monday I put an order in for a green iPod Mini through Apple’s online store for higher education (£165 with VAT and delivery). It arrives mid-September.
I’m leaving comments open on this article but based on past experience whenever I criticise Apple the Mac Mafia read the first couple of paragraphs and then leave some childish comment questioning my motives or telling me to grow up. Please play nice.

9 Comments

  1. I’m following this story too, and noticing both parties reactions.
    Real is paying now for what its actions in the past (i.e. redefined the term ‘bloatware’).
    An interesting question to pose: if all this was done by an unknown startup, what would the public’s reaction be?
    Finally, if we want to talk numbers, we should also note the following (Harper’s Index style):
    – number of signatures raised in the much publicized “Hey Apple! Don’t Break My iPod!” petition (so far): 2334
    – number of signatures raised in the petition that calls Real to “cancel their latest publicity stunt” (so far): 5821

  2. I agree that Real is fully entitled to make their products compatable with the iPod (and the DMCA explicitly says that reverse engineering for the purpose of making compatable products is OK). And I think Apple would be stupid to deliberately break it.
    *But*, Real is hardly the shining example they make themselves out to be. For an obvious example: Real’s music store does not work on the Mac.
    They want the iPod to be open. But they don’t make their own store open. Excuse me?

  3. “They want the iPod to be open. But they don’t make their own store open. Excuse me?”
    It’s actually very simple and has to do with marketshare.
    The last statistic I heard, the various flavors of iPod claim 54% market-share. In other words, a little over half of the digital-music players sold are iPods. Thus, Real has an interest in supporting the market-leading player–the iPod.
    Conversely, the Mac has around 5% marketshare. Real has considerably less incentive to support the minority computer platform, at least in an initial release. I’m not sure I agree with their rationale, but I’ve seen it in enough businesses to understand it.
    So there you have it. There is no hypocracy here. Trust me, if the iPod was 5% of the digital music players sold, I’m sure people would be whining that Real didn’t support the iPod.

  4. You missed an important fact: the percentage of iPod owners who also own Macs is *WAY* more than 5%. In fact it’s proabably around 50% — hard to tell these days, but that’s what I recall the split being back when there were different iPod models for Mac and Windows.

  5. I don’t have a Mac, and iPod or use ITMS, however as far as I am concerned Real can take a running jump.
    I can’t see why it’s a problem that the only DRM music you can play on an iPod is FairPlay. If that’s a problem for you go and buy another MP3 player! It’s not like the iPod is the only choice.
    Real’s “pro-choice” stance is a mirage; the consumer already has a choice: you can buy an iPod or you can buy someone else’s music player that supports Harmony (or WMA).

  6. iPods play MP3’s, AIFF, and WAV files + AAC’s – I don’t think iPod owners are limited for choice, or locked into a closed system. If WMA becomes a widely used format Apple has indicated it will look at supporting it, but until then it has its own AAC format. iTunes and the iPod are truly cross-platform compatible, as is the iTunes Music Store. The same cannot be said of offerings from Real et al. Real is in this to make a buck and gain a foothold in the market before Microsoft launch their store onto billions of PCs worldwide, NOT for “freedom of music choice”, or for consumers – to pretend that they are somehow altruistic and “reformed” is naive in the extreme.

  7. Brilliant Peter… Marketshare..
    Shall we talk about the Real Networks Music Store marketshare?
    Because that MIGHT go a long way towards explaining why Apple barely batted an eye when they denied Real’s integration with the iPod.
    Shall we discuss how Real is ‘in talks’ to license this technology… even though Apple is able to disable Harmony from time to time with an innocent iPod Upgrade?
    Who’s being underhanded, here? Real’s the one who pleaded for integration, when they already had Harmony waiting in the wings.. and then lied to the press about how Apple forced them to create Harmony.
    The real reason the Real music store isn’t for Macs is not marketshare.. the Mac marketshare.. for consumers is around 10%.. the problem is Real (aptly) recognized no one would use their store.
    Props on selling a million tracks at 49 cents…
    I believe the Xbox team has been doing quite well selling at devastating losses also.. They too are touting units, not profitability. I wonder if shareholders like to hear about units or profit.. hrmmm

  8. Ohhh. Green mini. You made a great choice, I’m still thinking of getting one as well. Green rocks!

  9. Suppose that once you bought a bunch of tunes from Real, you found out that updating your iPod became a nightmare: each time you wanted to change your existing playlists, you had to follow the just-plug-it-in, marvelously intuitive iTunes update with a manual update from the Real jukebox?
    You’d probably conclude you were forced to “choose” between all the tracks you bought from Apple and all the music you organized there, and Real’s product, right? Is this the choice that you thought you were getting?
    So RTFFP – Real’s Fine Print advises “why you want to use the Real jukebox” with that little “gotcha” — buying music from Real means giving up your updates from iTunes, and that wonderful nothing-almost-as-good interface that Apple crafted. Or else becoming a slave to that nifty little music player that you used to really enjoy.
    This is NOT an honest choice; it’s bait’n’switch.
    And it’s not as if Real has any deep commitment to support you once you burn your bridges and cut over. Their Mac s/w, when it exists, lacks key features. Their Windows products have accumulated a reputation for spyware, adware and hiding the “free” player in a barage of “update now!” headlines, and they patched together a mediocre store that is unprofitable because few care to use it under normal pricing. To top it off, they introduce a “proof of concept” and call it a full-featured product, knowing that it’s ALREADY broken without Apple trying to cripple it.
    So I, especially as a Mac user, am not “Real enthused” about helping wipe Apple’s store off the map in the hope that some day Real will listen to my needs and interests instead of theirs.