Tuesday, 01 July 2008 09:18

Rhapsody DRM-free MP3 store takes on iTunes' dominance

A full range of unprotected MP3 tracks, full-length previews, competitive prices - will the Rhapsody music store from RealNetworks be the one that finally puts the squeeze on Apple's iTunes Store?

Although Apple was a leader in online music retailing and pioneered paid downloads of DRM-free tracks from major labels, the music industry has become wary of its success.

The iTunes Store is currently the biggest music retailer in the US.

With the exception of EMI, the attitude at the big music companies seems to be "anyone but Apple."

So we see Rhapsody offering DRM-free MP3 downloads from all major labels, joining companies such as Amazon and Wal-Mart. Such tracks can be used with any MP3 player (including iPods); computers running Windows, Mac OS or Linux; music-capable mobile phones; many CD and DVD players (including in-vehicle models); and media players (including some games consoles).

"Until now, legal digital music has suffered from severe limitations on where consumers could buy it and how they could use it," said Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks.

"'Music Without Limits,' fixes those problems and will make digital music easier and more valuable for consumers," he added.

Over 5 million tracks from major labels will be offered by RealNetwork's new store.

But how much is Rhapsody charging for downloads? Find out on page 2.

Most albums sell for $US9.99 on Rhapsody, with individual tracks at $US0.99. This mirrors pricing at the iTunes Store, whereas Amazon downloads are usually $US8.99 or less for albums and $US0.89 for separate tracks, with Wal-Mart coming in between at $9.22 or less for albums and $US0.94 for single tracks.

However, iTunes' commercial success shows that price isn't everything.

Wal-Mart's download service is hampered by its refusal to recognise computers running anything but recent versions of Windows, ignoring the fact that the purchases can be used regardless of operating system.

Not only does Rhapsody provide unprotected tracks, it also provides a full listen-before-you buy service, rather than the 30 second previews available at the iTunes Store. While this is limited to 25 plays (after which 30-second samples are delivered instead), signing up for the Rhapsody Unlimited subscription service allows unlimited listening for $US12.99 per month.

As if that wasn't enough, RealNetworks has also made some deals with significant partners.

Verizon Wireless customers will be able to purchase music directly from mobile phones with over-the-air delivery. Purchased tracks will also be downloaded as unprotected MP3s to the buyer's computer.

And Verizon's not the only big name lining up behind Rhapsody - see page 3.

Full tracks will also be available for listening (subject to the overall  25 songs per month quota) on Yahoo! Music, MTV.com, CMT.com and VH1.com, with the option to purchase the song that's being played.

"With the Rhapsody MP3 Store, we're giving our audience the means to load up on all the music they love while they're on our sites - yet another way in which we're weaving Rhapsody into the fabric of all of our programming across all of our screens," said Courtney Holt, executive vice president of digital music and media for MTV Networks' music group.

Rhapsody will also power full-song playback on iLike.com and that service's music applications for Facebook, MySpace, hi5, Orkut and Bebo. Again, the 25 track limit applies to each listener. In return, the iLike 'Buy' button will include the option of purchasing the song from Rhapsody.

Existing royalty arrangements between RealNetworks and music labels mean royalties will be paid when tracks are played.

But there's always a downside. Rhapsody lacks the seamless integration of the iTunes Store with the iTunes software running on customers' computers, and it is also apparently limited to US customers.

Eventually someone other than Apple will realise that international (even if not worldwide) coverage is the way to go - though it's more likely the music industry that's dragging its feet.



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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.


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