Antitrust goes multimedia for Microsoft

Only three or four percent of RealNetworks' 27 million users are subject to the conflict with Windows Media Player that RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser last week told a US Senate committee was a deliberate ploy by Microsoft to disable his software. But Glaser's testimony - and a claim by Apple board member Larry Ellison that Microsoft has pressured Apple to back off its strong position in Windows video playback- has opened up a new, multimedia front in Microsoft 's expanding conflict with the federal government and competing software companies.

Apple Computer nd RealNetworks opened up a new, multimedia front in Microsoft ’s expanding conflict with the federal government and competing software companies when they sharply criticised Microsoft on Capitol Hill last week.

RealNetworks CEO and founder Rob Glaser told the US Senate Judiciary Committee that Microsoft’s new Windows Media Player in some cases disables the operation of RealPlayer software. Meanwhile, Larry Ellison, chairman of Oracle and a board member of Apple, fanned reports that Microsoft has pressured Apple to back off its strong position in Windows video playback.

“Let me be very clear: As a matter of principle, as a matter of public policy and as a matter of consumer protection, what Microsoft is doing is wrong and must be stopped,” Glaser said.

Bruce Jacobsen, RealNetworks’ president and chief operating officer, told Computerworld the conflict occurs for about 3% to 4% of the 27 million users of his Seattle-based company’s software. The versions that are affected are the beta of the new, free RealPlayer G2 and the older versions of the $US30 RealPlayer Plus. The new Version 5.0 is unaffected. G2 was downloaded by more than 700,000 users in its first week of availability. About 600,000 users own RealPlayer Plus, Jacobsen said.

“We’re trying to nip this problem in the bud,” Jacobsen said. Glaser said that, so far, Microsoft has addressed RealNetworks’ complaints only to a small extent.

A Microsoft spokesman denied the charges and asserted that Microsoft’s new media player doesn’t disable RealPlayer. Glaser’s demonstration of the problem was conducted on beta software, Microsoft said in a written statement. “We remain hopeful that RealNetworks will work with Microsoft to resolve any outstanding issues with their beta software,” the statement said.

Ellison, meanwhile, said in his testimony that “Bill [Gates] would like Apple to stay out of the desktop multimedia business.” Microsoft has developed several alternatives to Apple’s QuickTime software, but QuickTime remains the top Windows media playback software, and was recently endorsed as a playback standard by the Motion Pictures Expert Group for the forthcoming MPEG 4 video compression standard.

Apple spokeswoman Katie Cotton would not confirm or deny that Microsoft has pressured Apple. Although “Apple enjoys a partnership with Microsoft ... multimedia is one area where Microsoft and Apple have some disagreements. But we’re trying to work together in a professional way to resolve them,” she said.

Microsoft owns 10%of RealNetworks and bought $150 million worth of Apple stock last year to show support for its troubled competitor.

(Staff writer Matt Hamblen and West Coast bureau chief Galen Gruman contributed to this story.)

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