I have no idea how I missed the big announcement at the end of May that Real’s next media player will feature the ability to record media streams in a whole host of formats — most notably, YouTube’s Flash video content.
(As a tangent, the way I found out is kind of interesting — it’s because a Real Networks product manager actually called me at work in response to an article I wrote for Streaming Media magazine that ended up on the front page of Streamingmedia.com. The university where I work has a site license for the Real Helix Server, so the call was actually more to talk about Real’s roadmap for the Server’s future in a browser plug-in media world. The call from Real wasn’t the only one I got from inside the streaming media “industry” in response to my article… didn’t realize how a little freelance writing would garner quite so much attention…. mostly from sales reps.)
As I noted last month while attending Streaming Media East, Real definitely needs something to stay in the game, since the rise of Flash Video has moved the media player game into the browser, making the separate media player app seem like a quaint relic compared to Google Video. However, with Microsoft offering its own in-browser player to compete with Flash, adding a third plug-in player from Real would be absurd, and probably a losing strategy.
Adding the ability to record media streams is a ballsy move that adds functionality that a lot of people want. In my university work setting, I often hear from faculty who would like to save online media for various research and teaching uses. Of course, there are various programs out there that will accomplish this with varying degrees of quality and ease, but few are simple to use or universal. The new Real Player is promised to download video in four of the major formats: Flash, Windows Media, QuickTime and Real. And, the Real Player should be free, rather than costing $50 – $100.
Of course, I’m in favor of media content being downloadable and shareable for Fair Use purposes, and I think there should be tools available that make this easy. For myself, just being able to more easily save copies of FCC hearing and meeting webcasts will be helpful in producing my radioshow.
It’s also good to hear that Real has cleaned up a lot of the annoying parts of its Player with the new version. Importantly, they’re removing the requirement to register and also no longer having the Player take over playback of every media type. As the Real Player blog says,
Remember the media-type wars where QuickTime, Windows Media and RealPlayer would battle for playback? We’re not playing anymore.
Now, of course it still is up for question about how Real makes any money with this free player. Most of their money comes from their server business and Rhapsody. I’m not sure if a much improved player will sell more servers, except for the fact that with a Real Server you will be able turn off the ability for the player to record a stream. But I hope extortion is not the way Real intends to make its business (acknowledging that the player is supposed to respect DRM and not permit protected content to be saved).
Perhaps this is a good karma move intended to improve the image of Real amongst the technorati — a sector where I think the bad habits of its previous version players has caused its reputation to be tarnished. Real CEO Rob Glaser makes some Jobsian remarks in a blog post last week, wherein he says,
Why the big change? I think it has to do with the fundamental nature of media business models. Media businesses are generally based on accumulating the biggest audience possible, which means going where the audience is. Approaches based on locking down the content out of a fear of piracy are self-defeating.
Whether this will work is anyone’s guess. Before any judgement can be made, we have to see the player first — the beta is scheduled to drop sometime this month.