RealNetworks and three of the five biggest music companies announced a new Net music service yesterday. Notably absent was Universal – the biggest catalog, but also the most vociferous opponent of online music – and Sony, busy developing its own service.

RealNetworks intends to operate the infrastructure and make the entire back catalog from the three companies available for download or streaming into your computer. AOL and RealNetworks are the first companies to sign up to offer the service to consumers, but the library will be licensed to third parties, including Napster if it wants in.

All the interesting details have been left out of the announcement.

– No hint of pricing anywhere. Remember this is the same industry that has been selling us seventeen dollar CDs for the last ten years. Per song? Per month? Per megabyte?

– Only clues about the file format. It will not be .mp3 files! Here’s the announcement: “RealAudio offers audio quality at 64 Kbps that nearly nine out of 10 people surveyed couldn’t distinguish from CDs—setting new standards for quality and clarity at just half the file size of standard MP3 files.” So it’s a proprietary format – maybe it’s RealAudio .ram files, maybe it’s something new.

– As a result, there’s no way to tell if it will be compatible with existing .mp3 players. Probably not.

– No way to tell if the files can be played by any software besides RealPlayer or RealJukebox.

– And there’s no details about the extent of the copy protection that will be built in. They say this: “We feel that in order for a digital music subscription product to be successful it must make it easy for consumers to find and acquire the music they want and easy to play the music. MusicNet will be the first product in the marketplace to combine this level of ease of use along with rights protection for the content owners.” The only words that matter to the people running this service are “rights protection.” My guess is that these files will be locked up tight – you won’t be able to move them to another device or another computer and you won’t be able to burn them onto an audio CD.

Call me a cynic, but I expect this to be really unappealing.

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