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Wednesday, July 28, 2004  

Technology: Harmony tunes to play on iPod

When we last heard from Real Networks CEO Rob Glaser he was asking Apple CEO Steve Jobs if he could play in his sandbox. Glaser was concerned that proprietary software prevents music downloaded from his MP3 site, Harmony, from playing on the iPod, the most popular digital music player. Jobs resisted Glaser's entreaty, not needing a new playmate. Apple's iTunes Music Store is the source of 70 percent of music downloaded legally online.

Wired has the details of the courtship.

"Seattle-based RealNetworks said Thursday that Apple chairman Steve Jobs had declined an offer by RealNetworks' chief executive Rob Glaser to meet and discuss forming an online music alliance involving Apple's best-selling iPod portable players.

"He's in the neighborhood, but whatever meeting Rob wanted with Steve isn't happening," RealNetworks spokesman Greg Chiemingo said Thursday. "Steve just doesn't want to open the iPod, and we don't understand that.""

Glaser is back and he has news for Apple.

RealNetworks Inc. said Monday it would start selling through its music store songs that can be played on Apple Computer's popular iPod, defying Apple's attempt to make its player compatible only with music downloaded from its iTunes store.

The disclosure is part of a broader initiative by RealNetworks to increase the number of devices that can play music from the multimedia software maker's Internet store.

To increase its reach, the company said it has developed digital rights-translation software, called Harmony Technology, which makes it possible to keep the copyright protection contained in downloaded music. Proprietary security technology often ties songs to particular music players. Apple, which has refused to license its FairPlay copy-protection technology, did not return requests for comment.

Apple has not yet responded, but is likely to do so -- in court. The easiest way for Real to imitate the digital rights protection aspect of Apple's music downloads for Harmony would be through reverse engineering. That means taking iTunes code for DRP apart and coming up with a reiteration of how it works. Reverse engineering raises the issue of whether Apple's intellectual property rights have been violated. Real emphatically denies that it reverse engineered the code to get it to work with Harmony.

RealNetworks claims it did not break Apple's protection through reverse engineering, which is the process of taking software apart, analyzing its workings in detail, and then reconstructing a new application that does the same thing, without actually copying anything from the original. This is important because the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act made it illegal to reverse engineer software to bypass protections embedded by the original author.

If the matter goes to litigation, Real with need to document the process it did follow to create a way to use Harmony on iPods without violating DRP. Perhaps the developer anticipated a need to defend itself from the start and is ready for that fight. If not, the costs associated with litigation could be a disincentive to use the technology. After all, is unclear whether significant numbers of iPod users would consider buying music from Harmony instead of iTMS.

This conflict is about a sandbox and securing turf. Apple can use proprietary software to prevent other digital music retailers from selling music that can be played on the iPod. It can refuse to allow competitors to sell iPods. But, both those approaches to protecting its sandbox have now been breached. Real has freed the iPod from iTunes. Jobs agreed to let Hewlett Packward play it in its sandbox earlier this year -- HP-branded iPods will be available in September. The approach that does seem to be working is making sure that the iPod is the best MP3 player available. Indeed, Glaser's desire to play in Jobs' sandbox is confirmation of the domination of MP3 players by the iPod. It is continuing that domination that will ultimately protect Apple's sandbox.

Reasonably related

Newsweek has recognized the iPod as the celebrity it has become. Learn why.

8:15 PM