MP3 gets Real ... erm, Networks

RealNetworks new RealJukebox product aims to turn the common PC into a flexible, high-capacity stereo system. If it succeeds, the business -- and pleasure -- of music may never be the same.

RealJukebox is software that allows computer users to convert CDs into a PC format that can be easily manipulated, arranged into playlists, burned onto CDs, transferred to player devices, or exchanged over the Internet. While sales today are too small to be measured, US analyst Forrester Research Inc. estimates that digital downloadable music will constitute a $1 billion market by 2003.

"Downloadable music isn't that big today, but it's on a tremendous ramp," said Phil Barrett, RealNetworks' senior vice president of media technologies. "We're taking it from a techie thing to the mass market." With RealJukebox, Seattle, Wash.-based RealNetworks becomes the highest-profile company yet to put its weight behind downloadable music and the controversial MP3 format.

Downloadable music jumped into the spotlight on the coattails of the MP3 format, which enjoys increasing popularity among college students and technophiles as a way to manage and exchange high-quality music files. The format is near-CD-quality, but its files are small enough to send and receive over the Internet.

Some estimate that as many as 20 million MP3 players are now in use. But RealNetworks says its registered user base is 60 million; and users of its new G2 player outnumber MP3 users two to one. But unlike RealPlayer, RealJukebox is not primarily an Internet-based application. RealNetworks envisions it as a music-management system, something that might make playing music on a computer even more convenient and attractive than using a stereo system. "Certainly it's an addition to what we've done," said Rob Glaser, president and CEO of Seattle-based RealNetworks. " But all along we've thought of ourselves not just as a streaming company, but as a media delivery company, and branching out into another method of media delivery ... that's a logical thing to do."

RealNetworks is releasing the first beta of RealJukebox Monday, with a final release planned for the second half of this year. The software is available without charge from RealNetworks' Web site. G2 users will be able to install RealJukebox through an "auto-update" feature, which will automatically download and install the needed software.

Take me to the MP3 Special