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Is this Really the End?

Simon Pitt | Internet | Sunday 17th October 2010

The streaming service provided in RealMedia format has been with us at the BBC since 1996. At the time it was the best option available, but more recently alternative methods of delivery have become just as important. These include Windows Media and Flash.

When evaluating services with our public value tests, which includes the costs of the services, we came to the decision that RealMedia was something we needed to phase out.
Real Player first appeared in the popular consciousness in 1995 as RealAudio Player. At the time, it was revolutionary, since it was one of the first pieces of software able to stream live video over the internet.

Remember in 1995, even seeing animation on your computer was a minor miracle. I remember thinking these graphics were unspeakably wonderful. Now it looks like some sort of gif animation.

Real's ability to stream audio and video meant it was adopted by the BBC on the BBC website, and this will be where most people first encountered it. Real Player, however, was a fantastically irritating piece of software and rightly earned second place in PC World Magazine's list of the 25 worst products of all time:
A frustrating inability to play media files--due in part to constantly changing file formats--was only part of Real's problem. RealPlayer also had a disturbing way of making itself a little too much at home on your PC--installing itself as the default media player, taking liberties with your Windows Registry, popping up annoying "messages" that were really just advertisements, and so on.
With Real Player, there was always a 50% chance that the video would ever play. Since streaming video was at the cutting edge, updates were seemingly constant. Every visit to a video page resulted in hours of downloading updates and reinstalling and buffering just to listen to a ten second clip of audio at highly compressed 25kbps.

If that wasn't enough, Progressive Networks, the original name for the company that own Real Player, realised they had a monopoly on the video streaming market, and crammed advert after advert into their software.

The software was almost like a virus in its approach; it would set itself as the default player for all multimedia files, run at start up and automatically load adverts even when it wasn't running.

Nevertheless, it remained popular. By the time of Windows 98, it was even available on the install disc. It was an incredible example of the lengths people will go to if there's enough cheese on offer:
Napster and ICQ were absolute trainwrecks in terms of user interface. But it simply didn't matter. What they delivered was so compelling, and the competition was (at the time) so inffective, that these developers could get away with terrible UIs.
RealPlayer was not just poorly designed, but also purposefully aggressive. But people were so desperate for what it offered that they either had to live with it, or tinker around with the Real Alternative (that largely didn't work) or Neil Gaiman's 'loophole':
The BBC's charter says they aren't allowed to shower their viewers with craptastic ads for random American companies (I'm paraphrasing), so to get Real as a BBC format, Real had to produce an ad-free player. Which you can download. Yay BBC! Now you can enjoy Indian dance music, bagpipes, or classic comedy without ads for Britney Spears merchandise, medication for anal leakage, or whatever else Real decides to shove your way.
However, with the rise of Flash, Real gradually, but steadily began to lose their market dominance: In his usual manner, Maddox sums up the history of Real Player:
Back in the late 90s, everyone used Real Player. Then those cocks at Real Network got greedy, and tried to get their application to take over your entire PC, and people stopped using it.
This isn't quite true. People didn't stop using it because the application was rubbish. They stopped using it because websites stopped streaming content in Real and switched to Flash.

The announcement on the BBC that Real Player was being phased out, wasn't met with cheering and street parties, as I would have perhaps expected. Instead, the response was a series of minor complaints about how people had got used to it.

Many users, in fact, seemed to inexplicably like Real Player. Partly, I suspect this is a similar situation to the way victims of kidnap often miss being chained to a radiator when they eventually escape.
Can you do me a favour and make it possible for the Windows Media player streams to play in Real Player? [...]

Using Real Player's equaliser, I can make the commentary louder, and there is more of an atmosphere.

It was annoying during Wimbledon when I couldn't use Real Player like I did in 2008 to play the matches.
Now that the BBC have switched to Flash and Adobe Air, for all but the oldest clips, it's difficult to imagine who is still using Real Player. And for what. Even Real seem to have given up using Real Player on their own website.

Despite an attempt to come back by offering users the ability to download YouTube videos and burn them to DVD, RealPlayer never recovered once the high speed Internet came out, and video streaming became common.

The BBC switching away from Real Player for all but the oldest of clips is the final nail in Real's coffin. Real's only selling point was that it allowed you to do something that no one else did. Now that users can stream content easily with YouTube and Flash, it really is the end.

SP



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