(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 Real.com 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 Buy.com 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?