Load PC, burn CDs, with your tunes

Music: RealNetworks has another online hit.

May 31, 1999|By Stephen Buel | Stephen Buel,Knight Ridder/Tribune

The company that popularized Internet radio has unveiled free software to turn a personal computer into a home jukebox, further dramatizing the PC's emergence as the player of choice for a small but growing number of music lovers.

RealNetworks Inc., maker of the leading software for audio and video transmissions over the Internet, is distributing a program that will let PC users record and play music without going online. It's available on the Web at www.realnetworks.com.

Although many of RealJukebox's capabilities are available elsewhere, RealNetworks' clout and financial resources add momentum to the fast-growing PC music phenomenon.

More significant is the firm's endorsement of MP3, the wildly popular and nonproprietary standard for computer-based music. But the company's jukebox software will support a number of MP3's competitors as well, including RealNetworks' own format.

"The goal of this is not to be a Soviet store where we offer house-brand stuff," said Phil Barrett, senior vice president of media technologies with the Seattle-based software company.

RealNetworks' flagship RealPlayer software enables computer users with Internet access to see and hear feeds from Web broadcasters. Officials say the software has been downloaded 60 million times. But now RealNetworks is entering a market that's far more competitive than Internet radio was four years ago.

Millions of people have already begun using their computers as rudimentary jukeboxes, using a file-compression format known as MP3, which enables them to digitize music from compact disks.

By transforming recordings into computer files, they can sort and categorize their music libraries as easily as they organize information in a database. RealJukebox makes this even simpler by providing access to a giant online library of album information. Users can sort songs by genre or artist, delete the ones they don't like and create customized playlists.

This transformation is already in full swing among many younger music fans -- particularly residents of college dormitories with computer networks that can share files quickly.

Although MP3 usage requires a considerable investment of time, its fans can manage their libraries in ways that aren't possible with conventional stereos.

"All the best features of a high-end studio stereo component system are available as software . . . and all free," said Robert Lord, who works for the company that makes WinAmp, the most popular MP3 player. "WinAmp has the pre-amplifier, equalizer, surround sound and other customizable features found only in multithousand-dollar stereo systems."

Officials at RealNetworks say RealJukebox has two chief advantages over software such as WinAmp. First, it combines features that many users have needed several programs to obtain. The program will convert a CD's contents into computer files, play the files back on a PC and then copy the cuts users want onto a blank compact disc if the user has a rewritable CD drive.

"This is a product that will be the most complete and bring this phenomenon to the masses," said Christine Banfield, a company product manager.

Other software can provide such features. MusicMatch Inc. (www.musicmatch.com), which boasts that its MP3 program has been downloaded by almost 2 million computer users, offers $29.99 software that incorporates many of the same features, along with support for a new competitor to the MP3 format from Microsoft Corp.

RealNetworks also faces significant competition from tiny five-person Nullsoft Inc., which distributes its wildly popular WinAmp freely but asks for a $10 donation (www.winamp.com).

Lord said MP3 fans have downloaded 30 million copies of the software and 15 million use it actively.

RealJukebox's other key feature is the product's broad range of security features. Because digital recordings take up no shelf space and are easily stored on hard discs and exchanged via the Internet, the MP3 movement keeps industry executives from sleeping well at night.

To address this uncertainty -- and create a market niche for itself -- RealNetworks is incorporating several security features into its product. This includes IBM's new digital music format and the Secure Digital Music Initiative under development by a recording industry task force.

"Basically, we're doing everything we possibly can to make it very difficult for people to pirate content," Banfield said.

One novel feature of RealJukebox is the inclusion of a copy management system now built into devices such as CD players and digital audiotape recorders. This permits stereo owners to make flawless copies of their compact discs, but prohibits making second-generation copies of the copies.

RealNetworks built this system into the RealJukebox but is allowing users to turn it off.

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