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Jurassic Park. Duke Nukem. Virtual reality. Three things from the 1990s that have made a comeback in more recent times.
But what if something from the 90s never left in the first place? Take RealPlayer, for example. It used to be the case that if you wanted to stream a song, or a (grainy) video clip, you had to use it. The problem being it wasn’t all that good. Instead, it was awkward and clunky, and the streams themselves took forever to load. When it was eventually replaced by Adobe Flash and the new HTML5 standard, everyone breathed an audible sigh of relief.
Despite this, RealNetworks (which still exists, is listed on the NASDAQ, and employs over 1,000 people) continued to maintain RealPlayer. The company improved and expanded it. And while nobody was paying attention, Real Networks quietly turned it into a serious competitor to VLC, Kodi, and a whole host of streaming and converting services.
So, RealPlayer still exists, but the RealPlayer of 1998 couldn’t be more different than the RealPlayer of 2016. It still sucks, but it’s worth looking at how things have changed over the years.
RealPlayer: The Early Days
If you were to ask anyone in their twenties or older what their enduring memory of RealPlayer is, you’re unlikely to get a positive response. RealPlayer was a toxic wasteland of a program which flooded the user’s screen with adverts and pop-ups, and was prone to corrupting the Windows registry. Streams would often fail to load entirely, and RealPlayer’s cryptic error messages became a running joke.
There were also serious privacy concerns. In 1999, a security researcher by the name of Richard M. Smith discovered that RealPlayer assigned a unique ID to each user and phoned home to RealNetworks with a list of all stored media files. Although this sounds quaint in our post-Snowden world, at the time it was nothing short of horrifying. It was for these reasons why in 2006, PC World ranked it number two in its list of the 25 worst tech products ever, just below AOL.
And yet despite all of it, RealPlayer endured. Why?
Well, for all its flaws – and make no mistake, it was a fundamentally flawed piece of software – it was also undeniably revolutionary. Although services like Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu have since popularized streaming media, RealPlayer was first, and RealNetworks was the Guglielmo Marconi of the 1990s.
You could say that RealPlayer was a product of firsts. In 1995, the first live sporting event (a pitched battle between the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners) was streamed across the Internet using RealPlayer and the RealAudio codec. The Mariners won, and so did RealPlayer.
Two years later, RealNetworks would introduce RealVideo – its video streaming and storage format. This wasn’t the roaring success it had hoped for, and the Internet just wasn’t ready for it.
Streaming services – even at their grainiest – needed a fast Internet connection, and most home users were making do with steam-powered 56k dial up. Worse, RealVideo used a proprietary codec which wasn’t as good as the open H.263 standard.
By the turn of the millennium, RealNetworks had positioned RealPlayer as less of a media player, and more of a portal to access a range of premium content. For $10-a-month, users could access a range of on-demand content from the likes of CBS, the Ministry of Sound, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. Sadly, this was hamstrung by the dot-com collapse and tepid consumer interest, and after a few years was quietly withdrawn.
Gradually, people forgot about RealPlayer. New streaming services – like Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube – eschewed it entirely in favor of Adobe Flash. Sites that at one point depended on it began to abandon it in droves. In 2009, the BBC ditched RealPlayer. By 2011, the independent BBC World Service did the same.
What It’s Like to Use RealPlayer in 2016
I recently discovered that RealPlayer didn’t just go quietly into the night, as I once suspected. RealNetworks continued to work on RealPlayer, and now there are versions of the app available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.
Had it improved with age, like a fine vintage wine? Or had it continued to fester, like a long-forgotten cherry tomato that had rolled underneath a refrigerator? I wanted to find out by downloading the Windows 10 version.
When you install RealPlayer, you’re prompted to also install a 30-day free trial of the (frankly terrible) Norton Internet Security.
This wasn’t a surprise. Many freeware Windows products are monetized by foisting truly crap toolbars and trialware on unsuspecting users. Plus, the original RealPlayer was notorious for this sort of thing.
The hard-sell didn’t stop there. On the first run, you’re prompted to sign up to RealTimes, which is a cloud service that’s a curious mix of Dropbox and Picasa. There’s a free tier, which comes with 1GB of free storage. This is pretty stingy compared to Dropbox’s 2GB, and Google Drive’s 15GB. Anyway, I wasn’t interested, so I closed the window.
You’re then prompted to point RealPlayer to the folders where your media is kept.
RealPlayer will then begin to build your library. This takes a while. With my blazing-fast Skylake-powered laptop and relatively small movie collection, it took the best part of 10 minutes.
This sluggishness is a constant throughout RealPlayer. It just doesn’t feel responsive or sharp. There’s a lag between clicking something and an action happening.
While on paper, RealPlayer’s codec support isn’t as broad as VLC’s codec support, I couldn’t complain. I was able to watch virtually anything in my movie collection.
Probably the biggest benefit of the 2016 version of RealPlayer is that it offers one of the sleekest, most beautiful ways to download content straight from YouTube, Vimeo, and more. When it detects that a video is playing, a tab will show up at the top of the screen. Click it, and it’ll spring into action.
Downloads are done through a manager called RealDownloader. This worked fine, but I was a little disappointed with the advert for Western Union that constantly occupied the lower half of the window.
Within a couple of minutes, the video finished downloading. I was then given the option to upload the video to RealTimes, to trim it, or to convert it to an MP3. I could also share it with my friends through – yes, you guessed it – RealTimes.
RealPlayer also comes with a built-in file converter. Just select the video, click “Convert”, and you’re given a dizzying list of options. In addition to the usual suspects – the iPad, Galaxy Tab, and iPhone – there are also devices from yesteryear, including the Blackberry Storm, the Zune, and the iRiver Clix.
It also lets users stream their content to Chromecast and Roku devices. I didn’t try this, as I don’t own either. I also didn’t try the Roxio-powered burning facility, due to my laptop not having a DVD drive.
There’s also a RealPlayer Premium version, available for $5-a-month. This comes with support for DVD playback, a broader array of codecs, access to audio equalizers, 25GB of space on RealTimes, and more. If you don’t want to pay for a monthly subscription and have no need for the cloud services, you can purchase a license outright for $39.
Good on Paper, Bad Everywhere Else
In the 1990s, RealPlayer was a fundamentally ambitious piece of software. It set the groundwork for how we would come to consume media, and in many respects, we owe it a massive debt of gratitude. But it was also a fundamentally flawed piece of software, whose execution didn’t quite do its lofty goals justice.
20 years later, little has changed. The ambition behind RealPlayer is still there, but this time round, it feels much less focused. Rather than do one thing badly, RealPlayer does many things badly.
As a media player, it’s slow and clunky. It bombards you with adverts and a constant pitch to upgrade. Although its YouTube downloader is slick, it’s got more bugs than a Manhattan hotel room. More than once it crashed, taking my entire system with it.
RealPlayer just crashed my computer.
No, I didn't write this tweet in 1998.
— Matthew Hughes (@matthewhughes) May 31, 2016
I wanted to like the new RealPlayer. As a child of the 1990s, I’m prone to bouts of nostalgia. But my experience reminded me that some things are best viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of history, and not revisited.
Do you have memories of RealPlayer? Are they good, bad, or indifferent? Do you still use RealPlayer today? If so, why? Please let us know in the comments below!