The music industry went ballistic last week when
RealNetworks Inc. -- the company that pioneered streaming audio -- unveiled its latest
sashay into personalized music: "RealJukebox."
The "RealSystem" technology on which it is based
allows a personal computer to transfer, compress and store music from a compact disc or
downloaded from the Internet onto its hard drive.
Customers can download RN's free enabling software,
then play back the music in a variety of digital audio formats, including MP3, RN's
"RealAudio G2" and WAV -- all of which offer excellent sound quality.
I just listened to the songs directly through the PC
speakers, but you could hook them up to elaborate sound systems. Thomson Consumer
Electronics will make a portable player for use with the technology, and other equipment
makers will presumably come aboard, too.
"It's the end of copyright protection,"
scream the music companies, as they envision millions of PC owners dubbing the songs they
like directly onto their hard disks, then playing them forever, without ever paying usage
fees. Why buy a CD when you can borrow it from a friend and store the songs you want on
In typical cyber style, RN simply acknowledges that it
abides by (and points out to users) the pertinent copyright restrictions.
Click here and read this, you pirate.
The company also has plans for a commercial version of
RealJukebox, presumably for downloading customized mixes on some sort of
To its credit, the RealJukebox system incorporates a
variety of features and functions that give listeners the kind of control we've all
dreamed of to collect and organize our special sounds.
After downloading the RealJukebox software, you can pop a
CD into the PC. RealJukebox records the music while it plays, usually at three to five
times the playback speed.
You can watch the recording gauge, which shows that an
entire CD is transferred to your hard drive in the time it takes to listen to three or
four tracks. Songs can also be copied silently (without listening to them).
As it transfers the music, RealJukebox also creates a
database of the songs on the hard drive. Track length, performers and other data -- the
on-screen equivalent of liner notes from old-fashioned albums -- can pop up on a list in
the format of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The Internet-based CDDB (compact disc
database) functionality hooks up dynamically to the Internet to collect additional album
With some judicious editing, your hard drive can hold
entire racks full of the songs you want to hear. The RealJukebox descriptive material
points out that it has "built-in portable-devices support [that] makes it easy to
take your music with you" (i.e., the RCA or other brand players).
"Best of all, it's absolutely free and not
shareware!" the flyer shouts.
The RealJukebox concept resonates after encountering a
recent analysis of the way young audiences take their music -- in "disposable"
Unlike previous generations, who actually relished a
six-foot shelf full of vinyl albums, "Generations X and Y" -- RealJukebox's
real target -- just wants to hear the music. They don't want a rack full of jewel
boxes -- they simply listen to the songs until they have to decide whether or how to keep
or dispose of them.
That's the moment of truth. The limit on retention is
the size of your hard drive. Compressed music is one thing, but you can still run out of
Here's where the vision gets interesting. With the
immense expansion of storage -- a 10-gigabyte hard drive is now de rigueur -- the
How about copying and storing video on your hard drive? You
can be sure RN is planning on it, although company executives admit that the storage
barrier is a big hurdle for video -- for now.
Very soon, DVD drives will begin replacing CD drives in
PCs. The video options loom closer. Streaming video -- especially the short-form programs
of music performances, specialty shows or sports clips -- can easily become the next
cornucopia for a video version of RealJukebox.
Whether they come from DVD, from the Internet -- or
conceivably even from digital-TV downloads -- these video files could easily wind up on
PCs' hard drives, just as the music tracks are there today.
It's what convergence is all about: porting content
among delivery and display technologies, whatever the customer wants. And it brings
another service: more work guarantees for the copyright police (lawyers) and artistic
I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen will be downloading and
storing an eclectic mix of streaming sounds and sights.