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RealNetworks embraces streamripping

Why isn't anybody commenting on the irony of RealNetworks' announcement yesterday that its new media-playing software can capture streams, turning temporary on-demand transmissions into permanent downloads? Real went to court in 1999 to stop another software company from distributing a program that captured Real Audio streams. The main difference -- and it's not a trivial one -- is that Streambox's software bypassed the encryption that Real used to protect its streams. Real CEO Rob Glaser stressed that the new RealPlayer software won't save encrypted streams. It also captures the ads that are attached to streams, Glaser told the audience at the All Things Digital conference, adding, "We support the content creator's business model."

Umm, no, not really.

While content providers should assume that streams are no different from downloads, they often don't. You frequently see the downloadable version of a program offered for a fee but the streamed version for free, with the latter supported by advertising. (Just consider how many TV programs that are sold on iTunes are also available as streams.) And content providers wouldn't want their advertiser-supported programming converted into downloads unless a) they can restrict playback to prevent people from skipping the ads, and b) the technology provides a reporting mechanism that can generate meaningful statistics for advertisers (e.g., what were the demographics of the downloaders and when did they see the ads). Neither the announcement nor Glaser's brief demo addressed either of these issues.

From a consumer's point of view, on the other hand, the new software is a great thing. For starters, it enables portability. While streams can be viewed on the go only with specially equipped cell phones or WiFi-enabled portables, downloads can easily be loaded onto a video-capable cell phone, portable device or a thumb drive. (OK, some format conversion may be required.) Real's new software also offers a nice work-around to the problem of viewing streams on a TV set. Just about any digital media adapter (including Apple TV) can move downloaded, non-encrypted files from a computer to a TV screen, but these devices are flummoxed by most streams.

It will be interesting to see how content providers react to the player when it becomes available later this month. The simplest and most likely response is for more of them to start slapping DRM onto their streams. Oh and by the way, Real can help them do that, too....

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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