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RealNetworks Injects DNA Into Home, Portable Audio Devices

11/10/2006 12:55:00 PM Eastern

San Francisco – RealNetworks expects its Rhapsody DNA API (applications program interface) to appear in more home audio products at January’s CES and is talking with multiple MP3 player brands to encourage them to join MP3 supplier SanDisk in incorporating the technology.

Rhapsody DNA is designed to simplify in-home access to the company’s Rhapsody interactive-streaming service, and it’s positioned as offering seamless content transfers from Rhapsody’s subscription-download service to Rhapsody-optimized MP3 players.

For the home, Real expects suppliers at CES to demonstrate Ethernet-connected digital media adapters (DMAs) that stream Rhapsody’s $9.99 per month interactive streaming service via a networked broadband modem, bypassing the need to connect to a PC that must be on and running.

Currently, one home product incorporates “Rhapsody Direct” service: Sonos’ wireless multiroom audio system.

For MP3-player users, Real hopes multiple companies exhibiting at CES will join SanDisk in showing Rhapsody-optimized headphone portables that offer a “closed-world” level of end-to-end integration with the Rhapsody site without locking consumers into buying one particular brand of MP3 player.

Real also promotes its DNA as delivering the interoperability that Microsoft’s PlaysForSure platform promised but didn’t deliver, said music product management director Anu Kirk. “Like printers and computers in the early 80s,” Kirk said, “PlaysForSure devices can’t be assured of working seamlessly with PlaysForSure sites.”

Consumer frustrations with PlaysForSure include downloaded album art that can’t be displayed on a portable device. On older devices, he continued, not all songs downloaded on a subscription basis are automatically re-licensed after 30 days of playback.

“These frustrations led us to develop Rhapsody DNA out of necessity,” Kirk said.

Rhapsody DNA, he explained, provides a high level of site-to-device integration to deliver “functionality you can’t get elsewhere.” That includes the ability to transfer and store Rhapsody streaming-music channels on the device and play them back on the device for as long as the user’s subscription is paid up.

Rhapsody Channels stored on compatible portables are essentially large playlists derived from Rhapsody’s streaming-channel playlists. The playlists are transferred to the compatible device along with the playlists’ music files. Although each stored channel appears as one big file to the user, individual songs can be skipped while a channel is playing back. A particular song in the recorded channel, however, can’t be selected for playback by title, artist, or genre until it’s played and the user manually stores it in the device’s library. Once stored in the device’s library, the stored song automatically drops into the PC’s library when the device is synced with a PC.

Other integration examples include the ability of Rhapsody-optimized portables to display album and artist information that Rhapsody editors have researched and written. Another example is a system of red, yellow, and green dots appearing on the player’s display to notify users when the player has to be synced with the PC to renew the device’s ability to play subscription-downloaded songs. An integrated five-star rating system on the device lets users rate a song on the device. When the device is synced with a PC, the rating is automatically pushed to Rhapsody so the site knows what types of similar music to recommend to the user.

Tight integration also enables Rhapsody to preload the San Disk Sansa music players with segments of 13 music channels containing a total of 500 songs. Because the players are shipped with charged batteries, the players play back the preloaded music as soon as they’re taken out of their boxes. Consumers can play back the channels for a limited amount of time before the channels time out.

Perhaps because of PlaysForSure quality-control issues, Kirk speculated that Microsoft is turning to its own proprietary end-to-end system to ensure compatibility between its new Zune player and Zune-brand site, whose individually-purchased downloads and subscription downloads are playable only on the Zune.

RealNetworks, in contrast, launched its DNA initiative to convince multiple suppliers to offer portables that integrate seamlessly with its Rhapsody site – and thus combine a seamless “closed-system” experience with a choice of device brands.

Rhapsody DNA already appears in four recently launched SanDisk Sansa e200R series MP3 players, which are the first MP3 players to integrate “seamlessly” with Rhapsody’s site and with the newly launched Rhapsody-powered Best Buy download site, RealNetworks said. For a monthly fee from the sites, consumers can download individual songs or pay a monthly subscription fee to download and play back an unlimited number of songs from the sites’ library of 2.5 million songs.

The portables, whose firmware was developed jointly by RealNetworks and San Disk, are sold on Real’s Web site and by Best Buy.

In another point of differentiation from the Zune player and from Apple’s iPods, Rhapsody-optimized portables play back protected music in more than one music format: PlaysForSure-protected Windows Media Audio (WMA), used by almost all authorized download sites but iTunes, and protected music downloaded from Rhapsody and Rhapsody-powered sites in the 192kbps Real Audio 10 (RAX) format, which is built on the AAC codec and is protected by Real’s Helix DRM (digital rights management) technology.

In a departure from the Zune and iTunes sites, Rhapsody and Rhapsody-powered sites delivers downloads in two protected formats: PlaysForSure-protected WMA and protected RAX. The Apple iTunes and Microsoft Zune sites, in contrast, offer downloads in only one protected format.

Perhaps because PlaysForSure hasn’t delivered on the “sure” in its name, Kirk explained, the Zune device downloads and plays WMA music files, but the Zune device and site use a propriety DRM technology that Microsoft is not sharing with other companies, not even with hardware makers or download sites that adopted Microsoft’s PlaysForSure platform. The different DRMs mean that Zune-site downloads will not play on existing PlaysForSure devices, and consumers will not be able to play their existing library of PlaysForSure WMA downloads on the Zune, Kirk explained.

Rhapsody offers two service tiers. Rhapsody Unlimited at $9.99 per month provides interactive streaming, subscription downloads, and individually purchased downloads. Rhapsody To Go, at $14.99 per month, makes downloaded and streaming music playable on compatible portable devices.

Rhapsody subscription-download subscribers can purchase favorite songs and albums for 89 cents per song compared to higher pricing for non-subscribers. Downloads purchased from Rhapsody can be transferred to most portable music players, including Apple's iPods. Real’s AAC files wrapped in its Helix DRM are playable on iPods. “Rhapsody is the only service other than iTunes that sells DRM-protected downloads that can be played on iPods,” a spokeswoman said.

Rhapsody has about 1.65 million subscribers.