RealNetworks' CEO exits; its woes remain
RealNetworks founder and chief executive Rob Glaser gave up his job yesterday. The move concludes one of the longest reigns in the technology industry, but it won't stop that company's slide into irrelevance.
The Seattle software developer, having gone from pioneer to pest, has spent the last few years just going away. In that context, Glaser's departure -- the company spun it as voluntary, but outside reports suggest he was kicked out -- shouldn't have been a huge surprise.
But in the mid 1990s, who would have predicted this? Back then, RealNetworks (first known as Progressive Networks) shipped some of the first reasonably simple, reliable software to stream audio or video off a Web site. And installing its player application was mandatory for anybody interested in the Internet's multimedia possibilities.
But Real got greedy and decided to exploit this demand by packing in unwanted features and pushing extra-cost services and upgrades -- while using the RealPlayer installation routine to load up users' computers with third-party programs and links to other sites. (Doesn't that sound a bit like a definition of "adware"?) This pushy, invasive resource hog became one of the most-hated programs on the Internet -- memorably slammed in one developer's blog post as "Real Obnoxious."
The company took years to heed these criticisms even as it tried to get record labels, movie studios and electronics manufacturers to adopt its RealAudio and RealVideo formats as industry standards. As part of that futile effort, RealNetworks showed comparable blindness to customers' wishes with the MusicNet download service it
launched helped launch in 2001, a loathsome, listener-hostile ripoff that I could only describe as "aimed at financial masochists."
(Glaser himself could sound woefully confused about the state of the digital-music business. He was deservedly mocked for telling the New York Times in 2003 that "five years from now, Apple will have 3 to 5 percent of the player market.")
RealNetworks did have some good ideas along the way. For example, it bought a smart music site called Listen.com and turned its Rhapsody subscription service into a decent offering. And after years of denial, it finally curbed RealPlayer's intrusive tendencies: Recent releases don't try to hijack your computer and add one useful option, the ability to download offline copies of streaming video clips presented in Adobe's Flash format.
That last feature tells the final chapter of Real's demise. Web users didn't have to put up with RealPlayer's nonsense when sites began serving up content in such competing formats as Microsoft's Windows Media, Apple's QuickTime and -- most important of all -- Flash.
There's now little room left in the market for yet another media player. Lately, Real has drawn more attention for its misadventures in court -- for example, its quixotic attempts to bring a DVD-copying program to the market -- than for its products.
Glaser may be a prince of a man in private, as some coverage of his exit suggests, but it's hard to call his 16-year stewardship of RealNetworks much of a success.
How little? Just take a look at your computer: Do you have RealPlayer installed? If so, when's the last time you ran it? And can you name any sites that require you to use it?
January 14, 2010; 8:31 AM ET
Categories: Music , Video
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