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