Ignorant Soul: What’s the difference between RealPlayer, Media Player, MP3? — Tamara Burke, Ballard
Ignoramus: That, my dear, is a truly ignorant question, and one most people would be way too afraid to ask — what with Seattle being the Holy Land of Streaming Media.
What you have here is three types of software used to send music and/or video over the Internet. MP3 stands out because:
- MP3 software is not a corporate secret (its source code is widely available).
- MP3 is now used mostly to download “CD-quality” music onto your computer (it takes about 7 minutes for a 3-minute song, if you use a 56K modem). Why download? Because MP3 files are fat — they transmit at 128 Kbps (kilobits per second). Your modem, if it’s 56K, can handle about half that rate. So most MP3 files are not “streamed”–that is, “broadcast” over the Internet so that you’re listening to them as they’re being sent down the wire.
The other two types of software — RealPlayer and Windows Media Player — are used mostly for streaming. They compress/decompress video and music files to make them small enough to stream over the Internet.
And guess what? The two biggest providers of streaming software are both right here in Seattle: #1 RealNetworks (NASDAQ: RNWK), maker of the RealPlayer, is now king. It’s estimated that about 85% of the content currently streamed over the Net is done with RealPlayer. Microsoft’s Windows Media Player has 7% to 10% of the market.
The software each company makes is proprietary — that means the two systems can’t be used interchangeably, which is a hassle. And Microsoft is now trying desperately to catch up, igniting what promises to be a Holy War in the Holy Land of streaming. To play it safe, content providers are starting to make their material compatible with both Players.
Which company has the better tech? Probably RealNetworks, which licensed Microsoft some of its source code back in June 1997 (for $30 million over three years). But it’s more about marketing muscle than technology at this point. Microsoft, which now realizes that streaming is likely to be a major Internet trend — duh! — has started to stir.
Microsoft Trying to Get Real
Remember what happened when Bill Gates et al realized that the Internet browser was a revolutionary product? Microsoft put its own “free” browser into Windows, making Netscape’s product virtually worthless.
RealNetworks, however, has more going for it than Netscape ever did:
- Microsoft is in the middle of an anti-monopoly lawsuit, and this is likely to impact how aggressively it uses the nearly ubiquitous Windows operating system to club RealNetworks to death.
- RealNetworks software is compatible with Microsoft’s browser.
- Microsoft does not sell a premium version of its player, nor does it provide a digital “jukebox” for downloading and playing CDs. RealNetworks does both these things.
- Microsoft’s streaming software is not compatible with Unix, which is the other major software (in addition to Windows NT) used to run the big computers that form the backbone of the Internet.
Between Now and Broadband
Until most of us get high-speed access to the Internet, streaming won’t mean much. The viable market until then will probably be the downloading of digitized music, for which people will pay money (the files will be “watermarked” to impede bootlegging). Once most of us have high-speed access, though, watch out: the “Players” might just bring us music and videos on demand. And that’s the Holy Grail the industry has been pursuing since the early 1990s.
Got a question for Ignoramus? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be warned, however. Because of his strenuous pudding-making schedule, he can’t answer all queries.
Don’t confuse MP3 software with MP3.com, a website that lets you download “free” music (pretty much a big pile of lame songs you can’t pay most people to listen to).
To make streaming work, RealNetworks and Microsoft provide three different kinds of proprietary software:
1. Codec software to compress/decompress audio and video files.
2. Hosting and delivery software, so the files can be hosted (put on an Internet server), archived and ultimately delivered to the user.
3. Content playback software, such as RealPlayer and Media Player, both of which are now given away. Both buffer the digitized files as they’re streaming to deliver steady, uninterrupted playback.
What the Hell Does Loudeye Do?
Seattle-based Loudeye Technologies (formerly encoding.com) simply uses the “compresssion/decompression” (codec) software of RealNetworks, Microsoft and others to get audio and video files ready to stream over the Internet. It does the grunt work, so to speak, and has been making great strides toward automating the codec process so that it requires little input from humans or androids, for that matter. Look for Loudeye’s IPO in the first quarter of 2000 (check it out at Go, Go IPO).