Charles Arthur On Technology

Everyone's a player
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The Independent Online

So we're all agreed, then - Microsoft has been extremely naughty once again. The European Union declared last week that in bundling its Windows Media Player into Windows, the company had been "abusing its monopoly" by using the fact that most PCs sold come with Windows aboard to squeeze out rivals (by definition, smaller ones) who also make media players, such as Real Networks and Apple.

So we're all agreed, then - Microsoft has been extremely naughty once again. The European Union declared last week that in bundling its Windows Media Player into Windows, the company had been "abusing its monopoly" by using the fact that most PCs sold come with Windows aboard to squeeze out rivals (by definition, smaller ones) who also make media players, such as Real Networks and Apple.

Even a last-ditch offer by Steve Ballmer, the salesman who has risen to become chief executive of the company, to distribute some rivals' media players with Windows XP didn't assuage the EU's annoyance.

And so it is likely to trundle through the courts for a few years. This is the somewhat dispiriting outcome of the way that civil cases work; one feels it would be more fun, or at least more satisfying (and that Microsoft would take rather more care about abusing its dominant position) if, as with criminal cases, the sentences were effective at once, and appeals could only ameliorate them.

I'll pass over the debate about whether Windows should include Media Player, because I've explored it previously (19 November 2003) and because everyone else seems to have gone over the rights and wrongs at tedious length. (Microsoft and US Department of Justice: EU bad. Virtually everyone else: nice one, EU, pity about the legal delay.)

What's been overlooked in all this is the question of how well RealPlayer and Apple's QuickTime Player - the two principal rivals, though far from the only ones (there's also MusicMatch, VLC, mplayer, to name but a few) - actually cope with the problem of not being the default installation on Windows, which means that people have to go and seek them out to get them, and the programs then have the task of wrestling invisibly with Windows and Microsoft's default settings to become the first resort when the user downloads a file that either one can play.

Apple's QuickTime is fairly well-behaved in this respect, but a number of documents have recently surfaced on the Web that show that RealPlayer isn't praised by many people for the way it behaves once on their machine.

The starting point is a blog entry by Tomas Jogin entitled "Real Obnoxious", at jogin.com/ weblog/archives/000504/ (there's no www prefix). He comments: "If RealPlayer, RealOne, whatever, just did what it's supposed to do, which is to play video streams, then that'd be great. Although RealPlayer's task is simple and limited to a certain timeframe, RealPlayer defaults to running at all times, whether its limited functionality is needed or not."

He goes on - it's quite a rant - to point out all the things that RealPlayer does that are annoying: not quite going away when you think you've deleted it, repeatedly popping up when you thought it had gone away... and that's after you've managed to find the free version. You were going for the free version, right? Because nobody wants to pay for software on the Net - at least, not widely used software, no matter how wildly useful it might be. (There's an economic thesis to be written there somewhere.) Real's website has been redesigned recently, so that finding the free player is no longer the prolonged treasure hunt it once was.

Anyway, Mr Jogin's annoyance prompted plenty of "me too" responses from similarly aggrieved users, as well as a couple of interesting e-mails: one from someone who worked at the company, and another from a consultant who worked with it. The consultant said that $2.5 million was spent on his work, which was then rejected.

At the same time - that is, 2000 - Real also discovered something shocking: online, it had enormous brand awareness, up there with Microsoft and Netscape (this was in the US), but people had complete disdain for it, because of the way that the software attempted to force itself into their lives, particularly through costly add-ons and monthly fees which were pre-selected by default when you downloaded the software. Not that that was made obvious when you handed over your credit card details if, as many early users did, you thought that the paid-for version was the only one available. Those "hidden" add-ons - squirrelled away, the consultant said, below the normally visible part of the page - could add $50 to the price a customer expected to pay (just $19.95, quite reasonable for a good piece of software), and drove up the average order by $25.

I suspect that Real has learnt some sort of lesson (though I'll admit I've never bought the player, only used the free one). Its player design is much better now; the Windows version resembles the Mac OSX one, being clean and simple. Perhaps it has a future; certainly as long as it is the only encoding format for the BBC's streams (for listening to TV or audio clips, or radio programmes online), its position in the UK seems safe. Though if that ever went, or if the BBC began offering its streams in Windows Media or QuickTime formats (either or both) I think there would be a lot of defection from Real. Indeed, the BBC may be the main reason that Real has any sort of beachhead in Europe.

The big question, though, is whether it's Microsoft's fault that Real is so regarded online. To which the answer actually is: no. Microsoft first bundled Windows Media Player with Windows with the launch of Windows 98 Update 1 (which included WMP 6.1). Real Networks released its first player in April 1995 - more than three years earlier. But of course Microsoft already had the dominant position in operating systems. The trouble is that the latter fact meant that Real's attempts to dominate were always doomed to failure. If there is a lesson from all this, it is that if you don't control the software platform (as Microsoft does) or the hardware platform (as Apple does) then you're never going to dominate either. I tell you, it's a crime.

network@independent.co.uk

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