Alan Ralph

Wearer Of Many Hats

How RealNetworks Shot Themselves In The Foot

One of the tech news sites that I still follow is Techdirt, mainly because they do actual tech news reporting and commentary, rather than clickbait and tracking.

At the weekend, they’ll do a look back to what the big stories were in that week five, ten and fifteen years ago. Those usually induce a few eye rolls from me, as I’m reminded both of how far we’ve come and how little has changed in terms of what scares some legacy industry executives and the politicians they’ve bankrolled.

Via a recent look-back article, I found my way to this piece from 2004 concerning RealNetworks, makers of the once-ubiquitous RealPlayer. Wow, that invokes some memories, mostly about how bad that music player got over time.

Their website tries (repeatedly) to make you buy the paid-for version of the software, and even when you think you’re clicking through to the free version, they keep it pretty hidden. Then, once you’ve downloaded the free version, the registration process is incredibly annoying, sneaking in the installation of all sorts of things people didn’t want. On top of that, it throws up pop-up ads, installs unnecessary programs into your startup file and is just generally annoying.

The WIRED article that the old Techdirt article links to is gone, but I found a copy on the Internet Archive. And it makes for fascinating reading from here in 2020. Nowadays, of course, we’re used to installing apps on our phones or tablets to listen to radio shows, but back then those shows were literally tied to either RealNetworks or Microsoft and their respective broadcast technologies. Needless to say, Real were not happy about Microsoft’s Windows Media Player being embedded into Windows, and tried every legal avenue they could to force Microsoft to strip it out. The European Union eventually pushed Microsoft’s hand, resulting in the debacle of ‘Windows M’ which worked about as well as you can imagine.

Incidentally, if you’ve never seen RealPlayer in the wild, this review from 2006 has lots of screenshots. As much as I might gripe about iTunes — and there is plenty to gripe about — at least it wasn’t as gaudy as RealPlayer! Mind you, Microsoft weren’t much better at the time.

(Side note: I know many folks were heavily into customizing their music player apps with new ‘skins’, but to be honest I ended up choosing the least eye-bleeding option and keeping mine hidden for the most part.)