As per my daily routine, I was reading Wired Magazine’s RSS feed headlines, when I noticed an article on Real vs. Apple. This isn’t exactly news to me, as I’ve followed Real’s desperate attempts to gain access to the paramount of MP3 players that is the iPod through any means necessary. Honestly, I’m not surprised at their desire to have a footing in the lucrative iPod game, but I’m also not surprised that Jobs and company don’t want them there. One, Apple are notorious about keeping things “closed.” Take the original Macintosh: Jobs insisted that the case be bolted shut. Secondly, why would they want an open system in regards to the iPod? When they open up to rival formats and interfaces, they suddenly face the tech support problem, which goes as follows: The more variables there are in a system and its setup, the more likely it is to have problems. Case in point, Apple computers. Why do Apple have a reputation for solid computer systems? One major reason is that they control the overall system. They make the hardware and the software. If Mac OSX as available for Intel-based hardware, imagine the unforeseen problems. When you know that your Operating System is going to encounter only a set number of configurations, it’s easier to ferret out the bugs. Throw in the thousands of configurations of hardware in regular PCs, and it gets a lot more difficult. Such as the case with the iPod… start introducing new variables, ones that Apple can’t control, and you start having problems.
Regardless of Apple’s motives, I found myself somewhat interested in today’s news of Real’s heightened war on Apple’s dominance of its own product. Real promises to “open the iPod” through Harmony, which basically hacks Apple’s FairPlay DRM. Today’s news brought word of something of a “sale” from Real… all tracks from their music store are now (for a limited time, I’d imagine) $0.49. I’ve spoken before on my love/hate relationship with the iTunes Music Store, so I’m a bit leery of buying full albums online. However, when I can get a full album for 5 bucks, I figure it’s worth a look.
As most Mac users can tell you, Real’s software on OSX is, well… less than ideal. I initially went to Real’s website in Safari, my browser of choice. No word of a store. For as big a fuss as they are making about this in the online media, you’d think they’d at least have a little link that says “Music Store” or something. After some digging, I found the store hidden in Real’s Guide. To test things out, I went to the first album I saw, MoveOn.org’s “Future Album of America.” I clicked on a song title to hear a preview… and as is customary with RealOne Player on the Mac, instead of just playing the track, I downloaded a RAM file. Eh, not that big of a deal… you just double click and it opens the player, and plays. Except for the fact that after a little while, you have 400 little RAM files cluttering your downloads folder. However, that wasn’t the problem. The RAM file wouldn’t play in my default RealOne Player. So, I fired up my beta copy of RealPlayer 10 (what’s with Real and their changing the name of their player every other release?), which resulted in the same problem… apparently, the album they were showcasing on the first page of the store didn’t have previews operational yet… which is odd, because it’s not a new release. With RealPlayer 10 open, I decided to go with a more iTunes like approach, and I opened up the Guide/Store from within the program. Now most previews automatically worked (all though Future Album still didn’t)… no separate files to click. I started getting excited. I could get Modest Mouse’s last release for 5 bucks! How nice is that? And it was purported to work with my iPod! Even better (and actually something of a requirement for me). Then I started wondering about quality and file formats, so I started digging around for some technical details.
After some searching, I found out that the files (whatever format they were… it didn’t say) were “crystal clear” 192kbps bitrate. Now, in comparison to iTMS’s 128kbps bitrate, that seems impressive. But, since I couldn’t find word on what format these files actually used, the 192 number really meant nothing. An MP3 at 192kbps is still less impressive than an AAC file (the format iTunes sells) at the same bitrate. But the previews sounded good, so I figured I’d at least try it for once song. Real had a test “free” download so people could see how everything worked. Great, I’ll try that. One click was enough to tell me Real was blowing smoke up my skirt.
I was greeted by a message: Real’s Music Store requires a PC running Windows 98 or greater. Huh? I thought Real was “opening” up the iPod. I thought that surely included me. But no, as a Mac user, even one with an iPod and the latest greatest version of Real’s software, I was SOL. No liberation for me… back to the cold regime of Jobs.
Then I started thinking, “Wait a second. If Real isn’t really (no pun intended) trying to open up the iPod to everyone, then what are they trying to do here?” One look at the footnotes of a page offering plugins for different media players (including my iPod) gave me pause for thought. Real stated that users had the opportunity to use RealPlayer to manage their tracks on their iPod, or other device, informing that iTunes (the program used by virtually all users to transfer tracks to their iPod) would “delete files added to the iPod not added using iTunes.” This is actually something Apple has instituted to combat users of DRM-stripping technology from putting their stripped iTunes purchases on iPods (and thus distributing them). So, if I can’t use iTunes to manage my iPod (because any time I do, it will delete the songs I bought from Real), then I’d HAVE to use Real’s software to transfer any songs, at all, to my iPod. And since I can’t copy my purchases from the iTunes Music Store to my iPod (because Real can’t do it, and I can’t use iTunes any more), I can’t buy songs from iTMS any more.
What Real is attempting to do is lock Apple out of the loop, and lock consumers in to using Real’s software… and only Real’s software. You can’t very well buy songs from iTMS if you can’t use iTunes to put them on your iPod. So Real locks you into their music store (which is really their only income stream in this, as they have no hardware to sell you)… but how is that worse than what Apple does? Don’t they lock you into iTunes? Well, yes, but they don’t make bones about it. RealNetworks are making hypocrites of themselves here. They are the ones launching a campaign bashing Apple, calling for an open system, when they are only trying to create another closed system to benefit themselves. Real’s struggles over the years have been well documented, but this takes the cake. It sounds like a final plea in desperation to “Save our ship!” But it’s a plea this iPod listener won’t hear… I’ve got my music up too loud.