RealNetworks announces Version 8

RealNetworks has roped in Francis Ford Coppola to show off the improved video quality of its RealSystem 8.

          Most companies would be content to trot out clips of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." But to show off the improved video quality of its RealSystem 8, RealNetworks would settle for nothing less than the director himself.

          Chatting with RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser at the company's user conference, Coppola seemed impressed by the video quality demonstrated by the preview version of RealServer 8, just one piece of the RealSystem puzzle that was announced. Coppola even used his Palm palmtop to take notes about some of the consumer electronic products that will eventually support RealMedia formats.

          But the real buzz surrounded the improved video quality of the RealServer and RealPlayer 8. Glaser streamed full-screen video clips that were near-DVD quality at 1M-bps, with half-screen, VHS-quality video streamed at around 200K-bps, the "sweet spot" of broadband connections. This compared to the 1.5M-bps stream rate it took to do full-screen VHS quality only a year ago, says Ben Rotholtz, general manager of products and tools at RealNetworks.

          Glaser did show a favorable comparison of company's video quality to that of the Microsoft, however, analysts and Microsoft say RealNetworks was using an older version of the Windows Media Player technology.

          All of RealNetworks products get an upgrade in Version 8, with the most notable being added platform support and increased performance for the RealServer, and additional format types available to RealPlayer users, including the popular MP3 music format. On the server side, RealNetworks is building Version 8 so it can be adaptable to just about any operating system. Today, RealNetworks only supports Unix and Windows NT; soon they will be able to support Macintosh and Linux as well. Technology from Princeton Video Image has been added to provide interactive streaming media, which lets users click on various parts of a video to get more data or purchase merchandise. RealNetworks has also beefed up security by adding encryption technology from RPK.

          On the player side, RealPlayer 8 will support over 40 content media types with the addition of HTML, 360-degree video from IPIX and support for Macromedia's Flash 4 format. "We don't look at the Internet as repurposing existing content from radio and television," Rotholtz says. "We want to provide a full-fledge, immersive experience."

          During Glaser's keynote, the company also showed a number of consumer appliances that support the RealFormat, including portable players and Internet radios. While a lot of the keynote and RealNetworks' attention is focused on the consumer market, enterprises can also benefit, says Christine Perey of Perey Research and Consulting in Placerville, Calif. Perey says the portability of these new streaming media appliances will make it easier for company's to set up training rooms, for instance.

          Enterprise users, which are trying to offer high-quality video and audio for training while keeping bandwidth consumption in check, also will benefit from the improved quality of video at lower bit-rates. The less bandwidth used for streaming media, the better for network managers.

          All of the tools, servers and players are currently in beta and will ship sometime in the second half of this year. The exception is RealServer 8, which is only in "preview" stage, with a beta due out this summer.

          RealNetworks: www.realnetworks.com.

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