Backstage: On RealNetworks and the iPod

Over the last few days, I’ve been enjoying the diversity of press reaction to RealNetworks’ announcement of Harmony, the wittily-named new application that enables companies other than Apple to create digitally protected music for the iPod. A few articles have made positive comments. Most reports have taken a wait and see approach. And then we have something as remarkably strange as BusinessWeek opining that “it’s in Apple’s best interest” to “loudly inform iPod owners that Apple will no longer honor their warranty if they buy songs from Real or other rival online music stores.” (When I was a kid, business magazines used to espouse a little something called laissez faire economics, didn’t they?)

The impetus for all of this clamor is RealNetworks, which despite (or perhaps because of) a very public one finger salute from Apple some months ago, still managed to roll out an iPod-compatible online music store with 500,000 songs. But that’s not the real story. The 99 cent songs are encoded at a higher bitrate than Apple’s versions – 192K – and apparently in AAC format, at least for iPod use. Early reports suggest that each core downloaded and copy-protected music file is subsequently converted into formats compatible with different players, which would be an impressive feat if it’s legally accomplished. One song could play on any device.

For consumers, especially iPod users, alternative sources and increased quality would be good news. RealNetworks’ offering would mark the first legally downloadable competition on a quality basis (rather than just price) for Apple’s 128Kbps-encoded AAC tracks from the iTunes Music Store, and would add to the variety of legal music downloading choices already available. It might even compel Apple to stop using low bitrate compression for its own files. But as of now, the Harmony download pages appear to be down, indicating that the beta software either had fatal bugs, or that a certain company received a cease-and-desist letter written in blood and smelling vaguely of rotting fruit. Something tells me that we’ll hear more on that subject later today…

(Update: Looks like the download page re-routes Mac users, but lets PC users get the Harmony-enabled version 10.5 of RealPlayer.)

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