Another contender to the iTunes throne


30 Jun 2008

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Since its inception in 2003, consumers have purchased and downloaded over five billion songs from Apple’s iTunes music store and it is currently the top music retailer in the US (that’s across stores selling both digital downloads and physical format).

Can another online music store offer serious competition to one of Steve Jobs’ most successful ventures? That depends on how footloose and fancy-free people want their music to be.

Rhapsody, the music service from RealNetworks, wants to give away its music for free. Well almost: for now, it is only available in the US.

When customers download the Rhapsody music player, they can listen to 25 free tracks per month. Wait, that’s not so great, I hear you say. We can go to Last.fm or a similar service and do this. Well, apparently you can also share these tracks with friends.

“Millions of people can now experience and share digital music legally, and with no strings attached,” said Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetwork. Ultimately though, this is really a move by RealNetworks to encourage people to use its paid subscription service.

Rhapsody Unlimited is an all-you-can-eat model, worlds apart from the iTunes store’s pay-per-download service. For US$12.99 per month, users have unlimited access to a library of over four million songs.

RealNetworks is making a play for dominance, even getting the approval of heavyweight Google: “RealNetworks is enhancing the web experience for users in compelling new ways. Providing free, legal music at such a large scale is an impressive accomplishment,” said Sergey Brin, co-founder and president of Google.

Whereas all iTunes Plus tracks feature DRM-free music with high-quality 256 kbps AAC encoding, the bulk of its audio archive is in AAC at 28kbps or MP3 at 160kbps.

However, all of RealNetworks’ audio is in 192 kbps RealAudio 10 with AAC – a clear advantage until Apple manages to switch over all of its content to iTunes Plus.

Added to this, RealNetworks will soon be announcing a social networking aspect to its music offering, allowing users of iLike to fully download music tracks and share them with friends.

iLike plugs into the big social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. This is something that gives it a huge advantage over Apple because iLike has over 20 million users – all potential Rhapsody customers at the click of a button.

By Marie Boran