Five Years Too Late

September 10, 2008

Can RealNetworks be the “iTunes for Movies”?

Filed under: Digital Media — Tags: , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 5:36 pm

RealNetworks has been in the business of playing and streaming media on your PC since the way old days (1995!), and today they announced a foray into DVD ripping. The idea here is that RealDVD will be a fully-legal way to rip your own DVDs to a computer, easily and without angering the MPAA or other movie industry litigants.

Lots of people rip their media today. The most mainstream usage, of course, is ripping CDs into iTunes, and for some that’s probably all “ripping” means. But the idea of pulling music off physical media to store in the more flexible and easily-navigable environment of the computer is quite a bit older than iTunes.

Ripping became feasible mostly as a result of storage growing ever more expansive and cheaper over time. When the first CD-R drives came out (back then we called them WORM drives for Write Once Read Many), a good-sized hard drive was 2Gb and a CD of uncompressed music was 650MB. MP3 was still essentially a science project and there were no MP3 players. This was 1996. The drive cost thousand dollars. So at that point there was no real way to store your music collection on your PC.

Flash forward a few years and we’re all happily ripping away, putting our CDs onto our machines and onto players like the iPod. Originally you could use WinAmp, stand-alone rippers or Windows Media Player, but in a well-known story, Apple managed to get the majority of users to put their music into iTunes, where it comingles with DRM-laden music people buy on the iTunes Music Store to essentially lock people into Apple’s platform (and I say this as someone who has owned several iPods and isn’t really unhappy about using iTunes as my music hub).

So Real wants to be that hub for DVDs. Right now you can rip DVDs to your computer (storage, once again, has cheapened sufficiently for people to store collections of movies even on laptops), but it’s a messy process used primarily by tech-saavy users, and it’s of … questionable legality. By including a DRM’ed setup (including an copy of Apple’s 5-user file use maximum) Real pacifies the movie industry while allowing you to put your movies on your computer, enabling easier management, portability and freedom from the physical failings of DVD media.

Great, right? Sort of. On the one hand, some will complain bitterly about the DRM-ness of Real’s solution. There’s only so much legitimacy to this point of view. At the end of the day, when you buy a DVD, you’re buying the right to play a piece of media with content on it. You didn’t buy the right to give copies to everyone you know, and if technology can allow the creators of that content to have some measure of distribution limitation on the individual instance they sold you, that’s fine. As long as it doesn’t interfere too much with your genuine use (i.e. you should be able to have the file on each of your family machines), that’s fine.

Where Real gets it wrong (and where they are meaningfully distinguished from iTunes) is that they are charging you for the privilege. RealDVD is going to cost $50 and will carry a $20 per machine cost for the additional 5 machines you can deploy into the system. Clearly there are distinctions with iTunes on the economics (namely that Real isn’t trying to sell you movies or movie players today), but the free distribution of iTunes is partially what made it so widespread and pervasive. If Real is trying to place itself at the center of my movie-watching (and presumably eventually BUYING) life, charging me $150 to enable my household on their software is certainly not the way to do it.

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