A Comeback Product for Not-Dead-Yet Real Networks

by Steve Wildstrom   |   September 25th, 2013

Younger internet users may never have heard of Real Networks. But the Seattle-based company was once a major media pioneer, inventing postage-stamp-sized streaming video back in the days of dial-up connections and creating Rhapsody, the first subscription music service.

Real has had a tough few years, surviving on its mobile entertainment and games businesses and its venerable RealPlayer for PCs. But it may have found a route back to relevance by filling a a need for personal video sharing that has curiously been ignored by other players. YouTube and Facebook make it simple to share your videos with the world. But it is not so easy to watch a video you edited on your computer on the device of your choice, let alone share it with a group of family or friends. It can be done, but it’s a pain and different devices generally call for different methods.

Enter RealPlayer Cloud, a drop-dead simple cloud based sharing service. If you had a video on your Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, or Android device, you simply upload it to to the RealPlayer Cloud. Log on to your account with any of those devices or a Roku box attached to your TV, and you can watch your video. The service automatically handles transcoding and makes sure that the video is streamed in the correct format for the device. You can also download videos for off-line viewing.

While Dropbox, SkyDrive and the like make it easy enough to share files among all your devices or those of your friends and relations, video poses special challenges. Each video type, such as Apple QuickTime or Adobe  Flash requires specific software, called a codec, to play. Most mobile devices cannot handle Flash, while Android lacks a built-in QuickTime player. So unless you are careful about formats, there’s no guarantee that a video uploaded to a shared Dropbox folder will actually play on your friend’s device. With RealPlayer Cloud, you can share any video just by emailing a link.

It is also difficult, after all these years, to get video from a PC, phone, or tablet to your television display. Within the Apple world, the combination of AirPlay on a Mac, iPhone, or iPad and Apple TV works well. Other solutions rapidly get very complicated. But RealPlayer Cloud can be set up as a channel on Roku just like any other channel. This also fills a long-standing gap for Roku: The ability to easily watch your own videos.

RealPlayer Cloud comes with 2 gigabytes of free storage and various rewards can easily take that up to 3 GB or so. But that space won’t last long if you actually use the service. A high-definition video I uploaded that ran just a bit over six minutes filled over 400 MB. So Real’s business model is selling additional storage: 25 GB for $5 a month, 100 GB for $10, and 300 GB f0r $30. The premium tiers also provide higher-quality streaming. Free accounts are limited to 1.5 megabits per second–standard definition–while a paid account gets up to 3.5 Mb/sec.

RealPlayer Cloud appears to be the last survivor of a 2011 Real file sharing experiment called Unifi. It was designed to share all types of files, with an emphasis on music. But it was quickly overtaken by similar services from Google, Microsoft, and Amazon and never made it out of beta.

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Disclosure: I was a paid consultant to Real Networks on the Unifi project. I have no current financial relationship with the company.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • http://www.BarnesFamily.com/ davebarnes

    As an older reader, I see no point in Real Networks’ existence.

  • JLA

    This is not a product, it is a feature. An interesting feature though. Facebook should buy.

  • klahanas

    Realnetworks basically got sued out of relevance:
    a) Among the first (if not the first) third party program to manage an iPod. Apple squashed that. Which was the first inkling of the level of control Apple intended to impose.
    b) Real DVD. MPAA induced trauma.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Litigation wasn’t Real’s big problem. In the case of Harmony, Real’s iPod/Fairplay alternative, Apple threatened to sue, but never actually did so. Instead, they found a technical way to block it. But the fact is that Real never posed much of a threat to the iTunes Store.

      In the case of RealDVD, that was lawsuit bait from the beginning. I loved the product (you can read my original review here) but the courts’ interpretation of DMCA and the DVD-LA licensing agreement made it legally very risky.

      Probably Real’s biggest problem was its very fraught relations with both Microsoft and Apple, the two companies whose support, or at least neutrality, it needed to flourish. It just ended up marginalized when Microsoft, and to a much larger extent Apple, horned into its business.

  • Jeff

    Thanks for this Steve. I downloaded the android application and am very impressed: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.real.RealPlayerCloud&hl=en The main convenience factor for me is not having to consider converting formats anymore.