RealNetworks Jumps The Shark

(I’d made a commitment to a certain reader a few weeks back to follow up on why Real does things the way they do.  Here’s what I found. Photo credit to Christopher Chen.)

After listening to Real’s most recent conference call, it certainly does appear that Real views its customers as a nuisance and as a necessary annoyance.  In over forty minutes of presentation and Q&A, customers were barely mentioned.  Instead, the discussion focused nearly exclusively on what Real’s competitors were doing, and on the various distribution deals that Real was landing (and losing, such as Major League Baseball).

Perhaps this is a result of some sort of Rob Glaser myopia.  In the ten years Glaser spent at Microsoft (1983-1993), he managed a number of different products, including Microsoft Word.  Locking up the channel, and wielding the power of being thrust upon customers (as opposed to being chosen by them) seems to continue to be the M.O. of Real, as it is at Microsoft.  This does not appear to be changing any time soon.

What does seem to be changing, however, is Real’s focus, which is now not only on music but other downloadable content such as games.  Real seems to realize that the audio/video space that they’ve been playing in since their inception is now crowded, and that they’ve been pushed to the sidelines in the process.  It must irk Glaser to no end that, not only was he rebuffed by Steve Jobs, but now Apple has a 70% market share of the downloadable music market that he and Real, ostensibly, pioneered.  So, in what was quite likely a move based more on emotion than sense (and probably driven by Glaser’s reported bull-in-a-china-shop personality), he decides to trump up a petition and rally Real’s customers to rail against Apple.

This was a bad idea.

Here’s the wakeup call, Rob.  Apple’s customers love them. (And the ones who don’t are at least creative about it.)  Yours don’t.  In fact, your customers former customers such as the beloved CarTalk guys from NPR have gone so far as to publicly state why they are "uncermoniously dumping RealMedia."  Here’s why:

"Why? Because, for a long time, we’ve had tons of complaints about RealNetworks. And the one that ticks us off the most is the perceived trickery they use to sell their premium products. This is just our opinion, mind you, but it’s shared by enough of our listeners, that we finally decided to take action.

Here’s the problem. In order to hear our audio, you have to go to and download their "free" RealPlayer. But when you get to the web site, the free player is harder to find than Osama Bin Laden at night. And the site seems to do everything it possibly can to get you to "buy" a player instead. You have to work very hard to get the free player. And we think that stinks. And get this. It stinks so much that it even makes Microsoft look good by comparison. That’s something, huh?"

Even when asked directly by a Slashdot reader, "Why try so hard to force your software on the user? Is it worth the market share to anger and confuse your core audience? Mention Real to the average user, and their first response is ‘I hate that software. I wish I knew how to delete it.  I’ve always been taught that it’s best to make your customers happy, instead of holding them hostage. Does your business model say otherwise?" Glaser answers in PR-speak and evades the issue, instead focusing on competitors (Microsoft in this case) and his technical team.  Glaser:

"We have put a lot of effort into making our users happy and in giving users lots of choice in how they install and use our software. We have learned a lot over the years and I think if you look at RealPlayer 10 for Windows, Mac, or Linux carefully, you would find that it gives users much more choice and control over how our player works than any other major media player, including Microsoft’s Windows Media Player or Apple’s iTunes.

While I’m not 100% sure, from your description it sounds like you have a previous version of RealPlayer. In RealPlayer 10, the user can select Tools/Preferences/Automatic Services and configure all of the background activity, including features that remain active when RP is not running. With just a couple of mouseclicks, the user can disable all background services.

Compare how our software works to Microsoft’s. Have you ever tried to "uninstall" Windows Media Player? All Windows does, in its own words, is "removes access to Windows Media Player from the Start Menu and Desktop," yet it doesn’t actually get rid of the software. If you uninstall RealPlayer, we uninstall the whole enchilada. Same with mime types: we ask you what mime types you want our player to play, and then we only play those. On the other hand, when you upgrade your version of Windows, it takes the mime types it wants to without even asking. What’s more, we’ve been told by reliable sources that Microsoft writes into its contracts with computer OEMs that the OEM MUST make Windows Media Player the default player for major mime types, otherwise the OEM doesn’t get access to critical marketing funds that every PC manufacturer needs to stay in business.

Regarding your question of why we have put the features you want on specific menus, I will ask the guy who runs our player product group to take a close look at how we can make control of the specific features you have described even more obvious. My guess would be that the tradeoff is making the features available to technical users without confusing average users. Even so, we’ll try to do even better next time. I promise that we will do our best to keep improving our software for both regular consumers and technical users. "

"We’ll try to do even better next time," says Glaser.  Good grief, man…you’re on version ten of this thing already.  You haven’t listened to customers since the company was founded.  Your marketing department is out to lunch. You make it impossible to cancel a subscription once it is started.  Your product is accused of being spyware and adware (so much so that the BBC apparently requested its own version that was malware-free).  Why should customers believe you?

Here are my predictions on where this story is going to go.  Real is going to continue to swim upstream against not only Apple and Microsoft, but also a host of others such as in the downloadable music and video space.  They will continue to attempt to cut deals with "last mile" intermediaries such as Comcast, Earthlink, and others to get automatically installed on desktops in the gaming space.  They will work with Vodaphone, Nokia, Sprint and others to get their players as the "default" media and game players on mobile devices.  And maybe this "ignore the customer, but focus on the intermediaries" strategy will be successful for them, which will only happen if they are able to get complete lock-in, which is increasingly unlikely as other alternatives become available. 

I wonder if at some subconscious level, Glaser knows that this strategy is too broad, and opens Real up to a death by a thousand cuts from a variety of competitors.  This is almost inevitable, since he doesn’t have a customer base to back him up (as was shown by the Apple petition debacle).  Maybe that’s why he’s already picked out his next career?

27 Replies to “RealNetworks Jumps The Shark”

  1. UnReal Networks

    If you’ve ever been frustrated by Real Networks or their software, then you’ll enjoy this item over at The Social Customer Manifesto. My problem with Real has always been that they run stuff without telling me. Sure it is possible…

  2. Bravo, Chris! I did a little item about this post. Click my name and scroll down to “After.” Thanks for checking into the most aggressively anti-social company on the Web.

  3. Great post. You link to my little narrative about what it took to get out of Rhapsody, so you might be interested to know 1) that that post is getting a fair amount of traffic from Google searches such as “how to cancel Rhapsody”; and 2) that I’ve heard from a couple of people who are, of course, disgusted that they’ve had to jump through so many hoops to cancel. (It’s also interesting to note that since Real’s phone hours run from morning through evening U.S. time, its Indian call center people are fielding calls customers all through their night. That just adds another layer of perversity to the whole Real experience for me. I mean, you would assume that the phone hours have something to do with staffing a U.S. call center; if they extended the hours till midnight or, gulp, to 24 hours a day, you’d actually give your customers more flexibility and give them the chance to talk to Indian workers who are not on the graveyard shift. But I guess limiting the phone hours is all part of making sure you’re really good and determined to sever your ties with Real.

  4. Apple should buy Real. The Glaser/Jobs angle is so outlandish as to be realistic. For a little over a billion $, Apple gets $300m+ in good revs, 1.5m paying subscribers, terrific client and server distribution, a subscription music service and online games. Over a short while Apple could convert everyone over to QuickTime putting the disgraceful Real clients out of their misery once and for all.

    How about it?

  5. I Hate RealNetworks

    RealNetworks Jumps The Shark, from The Social Customer Manifesto: Here’s the problem. In order to hear our audio, you have to go to and download their “free” RealPlayer. But when you get to the web site, the free player is harder to find than …

  6. After reading the accounts of people who tried to cancel their Superpass subscription, I thought I would share mine. I tried to cancel my Superpass almost immediately after I signed up. Called the number, waited, went through the questions about why I wanted to cancel. Was told that my subscription was cancelled.

    But wait! There’s more!

    Five months later, I notice I’m still being billed. (I’m not one of those people who reconciles her bank statements monthly.) Called the number again, spoke to a CSR and explained that I had cancelled the subscription five months ago, almost immediately after I had signed up. I was shaking because I was so angry at being billed after I had cancelled my subscription.

    To my surprise, the CSR said, “Yeah, it’s noted here on your account that you cancelled, but apparently the cancellation never went through and you were billed for it.” They promised a credit to my account and apologized.

    So word of warning to those trying to cancel their subscriptions: check your bank statements and make sure the cancellation goes through. Better yet, get the name of the person you spoke to, the date and time you called, and any other information (transaction number, perhaps?) Needless to say, I shouldn’t have had to make that second phone call.

  7. pb, that’s an interesting thought. We might see that if Real’s stock price starts slipping again, and it would make sense if Jobs wants to start to have greater influence. If that happened, Apple would start to have a strong connection to customers with the device (iPod), the distribution (iTunes Store), and the content providers (e.g. BBC).

  8. I was a big fan of RealNetworks back in the day — when they were known as “Progressive Networks.” One of the big overlooked stories about this company’s poor customer relations is that they started out very promisingly, with an optimistic and even “progressive” attitude, free service for left-leaning non-profits (anyone remember WebActive?) and, what was, at the time (1995-96 — only a short time after the web started to go mainstream), a revolutionary technology. They could’ve had a customer base as rabidly loyal as any, if they’d kept it up.

  9. When Customers Come Last

    I think the Six Apart folks might want to take a look at RealNetworks to see why ignoring customer satisfaction for the sake of corporate maneuvering is such a terrible idea. Had Rob Glazer spent a little more time thinking

  10. Real jumps shark

    Real jumps shark: Whew, Christopher Carfi lays the harsh on RealNetworks, and the trackbacks indicate a lot of support for the sentiment. In fairness to RealNetworks, a quarterly financial analyst call doesn’t usually focus on customer experience, and …

  11. I used to work at Real and it’s far worse than this article even makes it out to be. There’s no one looking out for the customer or considering customer needs. Each department is separately trying to grab any piece of the customer to ensure that departments survival. It’s like Lord of the Flies, only with cubicles.

    All of the myriad failed business models from the past 10 years still exist somewhere inside of Real, contributing 5-10% to Real’s overall revenue. They’re so afraid to show decreases in revenue that they allow these departments to cannibalize their customer base. That’s what contributes to the amount of spam and consumer-unfriendly practices there. Rather than jettison off the dead weight and refocus around the future, they prefer to look only for the short-term gain. And I didn’t even mention that 1/3 Real’s employees waste their time supporting the lawsuits – that’s basically their main business.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know that every for-profit company is trying to increase their revenue. But places like amazon manage to increase their revenue and customer base by providing actual services that people want, or inventing new features that make you want to buy more each time.

    Real will be driven into the ground by Rob’s colossal ego and the sycophants he continually hires who surround him. All the quality employees left a long time ago, and now the only people left are either too lazy to look for another job or too stupid to work anywhere else.

    Between now and whenever, I expect Microsoft to settle with Real for $500 million – $1 billion, allowing Real to to fail at 5-10 more business models for the next 5-10 years before someone acquires them for the remaining cash horde. It will end up being one of the great “business failure” stories they teach in MBA programs.

  12. Real should just start dilvering their codecs to Apple & Microsoft and Macromedia for that matter.

    It’s Quicktime, WMP (Because windows wins today), and Macromedia Flash player has been storming through like a bulldozer as far as ubiquity goes!

    Besides, they’re just selling stuff instead of really developing better media.

  13. Real is the outhouse of video players. Why bother walking outside in the cold when you have a nice bathroom built in?

  14. What we don’t want to become… ever…

    is Real Networks. If you run a company that cares about customers (as I do), you’d do well to give yourself 5 minutes to read this skewering of Real Networks. I’m 100% sure we’re nothing like it – but it…

  15. My beef with Real Networks is that I had made a ONE TIME subscription to get the Big Brother feeds. However, they CONTINUALLY place a $24.95 charge on my credit card for a premium subscription that I DID NOT WANT! As I am typing this, 15 minutes have elapsed as I am hold waiting for customer service to pick up. I’ll provide a public service here since these people want you to provide a reason why you are dumping them BEFORE they give you a phone number! Here’s their number…1-866-715-5911. Good luck getting someone because even as you are on hold they are making you hear elevator music “from their Rhaspody library!”

  16. Peut-on être “cool” avec 95% de parts de marché ?

    De nouveau une question intéressante de Seb (je commence toujours par répondre par un commentaires, mais comme cela devient une dissertation, je trouve dommage de le laisse comme commentaire: “Si Apple avait 95% des parts de marché (dans le cas…


    On July 14, 1998 two domains were created and both domains appeared this same date July 14, 1998 on the
    World Wide Web.

    On August 3, 1998 Realnetworks, Inc. filed to Trademark Surestream. This
    filing was 20 days after the and were both
    present on the Internet. However none of the 1000 or so employees of
    Realnetrworks had the presence of mind to type in their browser the domain
    name Surestream and take a look much less the know how to check with
    Network Solutions to determine if a Surestream domain was available.

    The owners of and for 6 years have done
    battle with Realnetworks attempting to protect their mark Surestream. In
    the Final round the real owners of the mark Surestream, Floyd Burns and
    George Cole of Oklahoma City were handed a ruling by the court granting
    the mark Surestream to Realnetworks. This Judgment can be viewed at

    All domain owners should now be aware that they can never be assured
    their domain belongs to them. The fact is that a Realnetworks willing to
    spend thousands may be lurking about ready to move in.

    From my reading of the Courts ruling it looks like our failure to protect
    our ownership of the mark Surestream was because we did not spend enough
    money to qualify for ownership.

    We plan to Appeal although money is short.

    Floyd Burns
    Voice 405-946-0323

    VIEW THE JUDGEMENT. Click here.

  18. Great posts all. Thank you especially to ex-realer for the inside and to Tony Santiago for the phone number. I too was duped. As a financial sort it makes me even angrier. Signed up for the “free” service in Nov 2002 to get the player. Cancelled in December and forgot about it. Big mistake. I thought each month’s bill of $9.95 was for our AOL. When the service fee went to $12.95 I asked my wife about it. She said. “I don’t know what that is. We pay AOL seperately”. I feel like such a dunce. When I contacted Real customer service they offered two options: 1) Cancel and forget it (i.e. $250.80). 2) Claim it was fradulent. They Blacklist my credit card (Kelcey said it only affects any Real Network charges). It terminates my account. Then I go to my Card company. I took column 2 since 1 had not worked so well. When I asked them to track when someone using my account accessed the service she said that they could not track that information. Seems odd to me if the can’t. I have other services that can track time and use. My card company said that they only credit back 3 billings. Thus we’re out $211.95 for a service I never used, and thought was cancelled. I’m PO’d enough to go to small claims court. Any ideas? Can we say class action?



  19. Realplayer has frequent hidden communications with RealNetworks, even when the player has not been used. Spyware is any program that communicates any sort of information from a person’s computer without the person’s specific request and concurrent knowledge of the communication. As users we must unite and demand all internet companies stop this intrusive activity, or we will dump their programs, and flame their companies. The new EU constitution protects their citizen’s right to privacy. People in the USA, and all other countries, certainly deserve the same rights and protections of privacy.

  20. Oh, yea! Real Player sucks big time. I seriously wish would dump it for somthing else. I’d even be happy with windows media player (even though I hate wmp, it still is a thousand times better than rp).

  21. Here’s one for you.

    If you purchase music through Real Networks, Inc. but then you lose your password you have an option to get a new password, but first you have to enter in the e-mail address and credit card number you purchased the music with. Now check this out. What if you don’t have that e-mail address anymore, or what if you cut-up the credit card, or it got stolen, et cetra? You don’t have the number any more and a lot of money has been thrown down the drain. What I wonder is why are they storing my credit card number, expiration date, and other personal information for?

    This seems like a little much just to listen to a couple songs legally purchased from the Internet. I had originally decided to purchase music off of the Internet to save the hassle of backing it up on custom-mix CD’s but it’s just as expensive to buy CD’s at the local music store. That’s what I’ll do for now on.

    I wish I could a stop to this before anyone else gets hurt and has their investment unjustly and probably unlawfully taken away from them.

  22. Thanks, Praktike, for articulating so well what life is like inside of RealNetworks (or as I usually refer to it now, RealNitwits). When asked why I left the company, I explain to people that I finally came to understand that Glaser’s 3-part business model of “1) screw the customers, 2) screw the employees, and 3) screw the stockholders,” was never going to change, and thus to stick around any longer in that soul-draining environment would simply be throwing good days after bad–suffering ongoing humiliation and degradation at below-market wages, with no reasonable expectation of future financial return. I dropped my tens of thousands of worthless stock options in the dirt, reclaimed my sanity and self-autonomy, and got the hell out of that quagmire. I’m still convinced, years later, it was the single best decision of my life. And every other former colleague from Real that I know of who has made the same move says the same.

    For someone who prides himself on being so damn smart, its clear that on the big picture questions of how to run a company, of what’s important in order to succeed as a company, Rob Glaser is, to put it gently, a moron.

  23. Pardon, I misread the authors. I should have said thanks to ex-realer, not praktike (though if pressed, I guess I’d have to say praktike’s sentiment is not totally without merit, either.) 🙂

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