SAN FRANCISCO (01/26/2000) - Your favorite actor is doing an exclusive interview on the Web, but what will give you the best live shot -- RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer or Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player?
RealNetworks and Microsoft are battling it out on the 'Net, trying to enlist you for their media players. Both are free. RealNetworks claims 95 million users, while Microsoft cites 50 million downloads. More audio and video content is available in the Real format, but Windows Media is catching up fast.
What does each offer -- and should you try to pick one, or do you need them both?
Microsoft Makes Some Moves
Microsoft keeps playing 'Let's Make A Deal' for its Windows Media Player, introduced last year.
Last weekend Microsoft announced that both Liquid Audio and Digital Distribution Domain would support Windows Media in their streaming music and video distribution systems. The company also paired up with Intertainer to offer on-demand material. Intertainer provides news, films, music, television programs, and shopping to PCs and TVs over cable or DSL (digital subscriber line) technology.
More importantly, Microsoft now bundles Media Player with most editions of Windows. Versions for Windows CE Palm-size PCs and Pocket PCs are in development, says Kevin Unangst, group product manager for Microsoft's digital media division. "We also worked with Phillips and General Instruments on integrating Windows Media Player in set-top box."
"There's certainly an advantage to having an instant installed base for people trying to decide what format," notes Kevin Hause, manager of consumer devices at International Data Corporation.
Real Content, Right Now
In addition to RealPlayer 7, RealNetworks offers Take 5, which feeds audio and video clips to your RealPlayer 7. Take 5 plays 5 minutes of video and audio clips each day, which highlight news and entertainment happenings. Click on any clip and you're taken to the media site where you can get the full story.
Like Microsoft, RealNetworks is moving its player off PCs. Earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show, company chairman Rob Glaser demonstrated a touch-screen device running RealPlayer, as well as a set-top box running a streaming music video via RealPlayer.
"We're working on handhelds," says Jay Wampole, RealNetworks director of communications. "We're all about moving beyond PC." RealPlayer is already on Microsoft's Web TV and Liberate Technologies' set-top box, he notes.
Play That Music -- Any Music
Both companies want you to be able to download and play any music on their players. "Consumers don't care about file formats, they care about music," according to Wampole.
Both Microsoft and RealNetworks support MP3, the dominant file format for online music (MP3 files are not streamed, but copied before playing).
Microsoft, naturally, pushes the Windows Media format.
RealNetworks accepts multiple audio formats in RealJukebox, a companion free product for playing digital music. The RealJukebox plays MP3, Real Audio files, and other codecs (software that compresses digital data into a smaller binary format) including Liquid Audio, Universal, EMMS (from IBM), and A2B -- but not Windows Media. It also works with most portable music players, such as RCA's Lyra, Diamond Multimedia's Rio, Creative Labs' Nomad, and Sony's VAIO Music Clip and Memory Stick Walkman.
"You can build a playlist with all the formats (RealJukebox supports) and move them to a portable device," Wampole says.
Last week, RealNetworks unveiled "Quicksilver," a free subscription service that sends your choice of digital music to your RealJukebox.
Windows Media doesn't have its own jukebox, but its format plays on MusicMatch, Rioport Audiophile, Sonic Foundry Siren, and cablemusic J.A.C.K. jukeboxes. The latest portable players from Diamond, RCA, Sony, and Creative also support Windows Media.
Windows Media files also ease the music industry's worries about pirating, however, with technology that tracks the movement of music files, limits copying, and supports payment for download sales -- unlike MP3. Microsoft has licensed its technology to most major record labels.
RealJukebox implements Universal's Intertrust security technology. None of the deals is exclusive.
Sites for Sore Ears
At RealNetworks' Real.com guide portal, you can get streamed music and video for its players, enabling you to build your own jukebox. Of course, you also get ads with the RealPlayer.
In contrast, Microsoft's windowsmedia.com site doesn't host tunes but points you to sites that do.
A Sound Choice
Microsoft says that one recent consumer study found that Windows Media files sounded closer to CD quality than MP3 at a smaller file size. But tests conducted by Stereo Review's Sound and Vision Magazine dismissed Windows Media's claims of superiority.
Generally, content streams more quickly on the RealPlayer, making it more flexible for wide-ranging connection speeds.
Still, taking an informal look, I had a hard time telling the difference between Real and Windows Media. Over a T1 connection, I watched several movie trailers on Hollywood.com. Some looked better using one, with some looking better on the other.
Overall, RealPlayer gave a faster response, but Windows Media Player showed slightly better quality.
"It's really subjective," Hause says. Both Microsoft and RealNetworks make certain trade-offs for better quality and smaller files, especially for low-bandwidth connections, he says. "For the foreseeable future, we're going to have multiple formats."
And since they're both free, go ahead and add them to your PC's bag of tricks.