January 26, 2006

Real's Rhapsody.com -- a music service worth paying for?

Author: Nathan Willis

In November, Real Networks opened its Rhapsody.com online music service to non-Windows clients, a venture widely touted as the first "legal" online music service available to Linux users. How does it measure up?

Real has provided RealPlayer browser plugins for Linux for years now, but the Rhapsody.com service operates through a separate plugin of its own. I point this out to make it clear that Linux support is a conscious decision on Real's part. Some initial reports of the launch incorrectly suggested that the service operates through RealPlayer or is simply OS-agnostic because it functions through the browser.

Get Real

That said, Rhapsody.com offers a subset of the features available to Rhapsody Jukebox users on Windows. Rhapsody Jukebox and Rhapsody.com share access to the same library of audio content (Real claims 1.3 million tracks at present), but whereas the Rhapsody.com client can access them only while connected to the Internet, Rhapsody Jukebox can play them offline, supports ripping and burning CDs, and allows transferring tracks to compatible hardware devices.

The Rhapsody Music Store -- accessible only through the Windows version of RealPlayer -- is yet another separate product/service. Users can purchase songs through the Rhapsody Music Store in "secure RealAudio" format (.rax) which are playable in RealPlayer, exportable to CD or portable device, and that (unlike Rhapsody tracks) do not "expire" if you stop paying for service.

With an email address and password, you can sign up immediately for a free Rhapsody.com account and the authentication service will help you download and install the plugin. On Linux, the Rhapsody.com plugin works natively only with Firefox version 1.0.x, on 32-bit x86 hardware.

The official system requirements list Fedora Core 4 and SUSE 9.3 as supported platforms, and the GNU C Library (glibc) 2.3 as necessary for interested parties on other distros. Several users have complained on the Real support boards that the plugin does not function with distro-provided Firefox binaries; if you experience trouble the generally accepted solution is to install a vanilla Firefox build obtained directly from mozilla.org.

A free Rhapsody 25 account allows you just 25 tracks of your own choosing per month, plus access to 25 Rhapsody Radio streaming audio channels. You also get access to a variety of pre-existing playlists created by other users, Real employees, and assorted celebrities. The free tracks are counted per play, not per title, meaning that you can choose to exhaust your monthly allotment listening to a single Philip Glass track 25 times, if that's the music you decide best suits your month.

The streaming audio channels available to Rhapsody 25 users are a small, generic subset of those available to paying customers. Most are genre-themed and broad in scope -- think easy listening and classic rock, not indie acid jazz or Sixties British folk. You cannot skip any tracks with Rhapsody 25; paying Rhapsody.com customers are allowed a fixed number of skips per time slot -- currently 30 skips per three-hour period.

Playlists seem to behave according to different rules. When listening to celebrity playlists, my 25-track counter did not decrement as it did with individual tracks, and skipping did work, unlike the behavior of streaming audio channels. Some tracks were greyed out, indicating that they were not available; others (such as the interview tracks in the Brian Wilson playlist) were described as free.

The online documentation does not clarify exactly what rules apply to playlist content. Based on my own experience, this is typical of Real; questions are answered with commercials, informational links redirected to marketing portals. Just finding a key that explains the interface's two dozen icons requires searching the message boards and knowledge base, which are conveniently located at two different third-party sites.

The free Rhapsody 25 account is not your only option. For a $10 monthly fee you can play an unlimited number of tracks from the Rhapsody library and choose from more streaming audio channels -- so long as you don't skip more than 30 songs in a three-hour period, of course. Real calls this a Rhapsody Unlimited account.

Artist selection is similar to iTunes. Major label artists are fairly well-represented, with some notable exceptions, such as The Beatles. Some small label people are available as well, but Rhapsody frequently doesn't have their entire catalog. For major acts, Rhapsody has singles and boxed-set material in addition to regular albums, which is a bonus for users who want access to more than the chart-topping singles.

The Real deal

So is Rhapsody worth it? As long as it is free, I suppose the free streaming audio channels are worth listening to. The sound quality is good, and if you can get the Rhapsody plugin to install in your copy of Firefox, it is easy to use. But I don't see much value in being able to play 25 tracks per month.

On the other hand, I see no justification for paying $10 a month to listen to streaming audio. Are Internet radio stations hard to find? There is far more variety in the Shoutcast directory (and its peers) than in Rhapsody.com's channel list, and MP3 streams are free.

Real's claim that Rhapsody.com is the first legal audio service available for Linux might be true on a technicality (there is a Linux-specific client), but Shoutcast and its peers are available on any platform precisely because they don't require a special client application.

Moreover, the Rhapsody.com software does not currently give users access to the Rhapsody Music Store. If or when it does, Real can rightly claim to have created the first music purchase store with a Linux-specific front end, but again the value of that claim hinges on ignoring sites that sell un-DRMed music files, such as Mindawn.com, AllofMP3.com, and Magnatune.com.

The Rhapsody.com service looks like a non-starter on its merits alone. But I do not think that selling the subscription service is Real's actual endgame; rather, it is the playlist- and song-sharing feature. The Rhapsody.com documentation discusses playlists mostly from a "share your music" standpoint -- subscribers are encouraged to create their own playlists, post playlists to Playlist Central, email playlists to their friends, and link to playlists in their blogs. This may be the key to the business plan -- to make Rhapsody.com a Web-wide clickable music link presence.

My suspicion is that Real wants to turn Rhapsody into the preferred mechanism for individuals to link to music in their email and Web pages. That justifies the creation of Mac and Linux clients and the accompanying lack of Rhapsody Jukebox functionality. The company has expressed interest in tackling the Web service space before. If the end goal is using Rhapsody.com to link music to Web sites, doing so freely is clearly part of the plan.

With the iTunes Music Store's 80% market share dominance of digital music purchases, Real has probably given up on competing directly for now, hoping to scoop up the free sharing market instead. If it is successful, we may all benefit from having the Rhapsody plugin installed. But until then, the Rhapsody.com service is not worth recommending.

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