Back in the formative years of the World Wide Web, RealPlayer dominated as the first choice for displaying media on websites. Just as Flash is ubiquitous in 2012 (with HTML 5 waiting to steal its crown) so RealPlayer was on hand as an embedded player and a desktop application throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s hard to appreciate just how widely used certain applications were in the past. RealPlayer turns up these days as the playback option on sites that haven’t been touched for years; they might not even be indexed by Google any longer, but can still be found in bookmarks and archival websites.
With privacy issues among its faults, RealPlayer was a fantastic piece of software, all things considered. Its failure to adapt to a changing web has led to its current low level of usage, but from its launch in 1995 it filled a much needed role as a general multimedia playback application, capable of dealing with standard formats such as AVI as well as its own RM format.
Why Didn’t They Just Listen?
The main problem with RealPlayer, of course, is exemplified in the irony of a company issuing a video and music player who seemed unable to listen to feedback from their users. As the app got fatter with needless and data mining features with each successive version, so users started to look for alternative solutions; compare and contrast this with WinAmp, where unpopular decisions in the design of version 3 were removed for version 5.
RealPlayer started well, but somehow the drive to monetise the application in the days when no one really knew what they were doing when it came to making money on the web has to this day overshadowed its development.
RealPlayer was initially released on Windows 95. Subsequent releases followed mainly for that platform, although by 2007 versions for Mac OS X and Linux had been made available. Since then, RealPlayer has migrated to mobile, with Android, Symbian and Palm users able to download and use the software for free.
The first version of RealPlayer was known as RealAudio Player. It looked astonishing; compared with other media players available at the time, the smooth lines of the chrome and the sensible UI made it an application that everyone wanted. Although there were some file types that couldn’t be played, the software was so successful in promoting the RM format that many websites used it as their de facto standard for streaming audio and video content.
Over the following years several updates were made available, mainly to resolve playback or resource-related issues. The importance of RealAudio Player was such that it was included in Windows 98 as an optional Internet tool, something that helped to increase the use of the media player.
Technically RealPlayer 6, RealPlayer G2 was released in May 2002, and marked the second stage in the software’s history, introducing the RealPlayer name. Curiously the player couldn’t easily be resized but this didn’t matter too much – videos could be watched in your default browser, accessed either by clicking the relevant link or choosing one of the provided Channels.
This was the version that really made RealPlayer popular, with its low 3.1 MB file size and simple user interface. While the advantage of ripping and burning CDs was yet to be introduced, RealPlayer G2 was pleasingly simple.
By 2005, the way in which multimedia was accessed had changed enough for a new version of RealPlayer to be released.
A polished, rounded interface with plenty of space provided for the user as opposed to advertising, RealOne Player was a refreshing experience but opinion among loyal users who had bought into the brand was split. Like the original, however, there were clues as to the direction the software would take, with a large browser/online player area in the lower-half of the window. Thankfully, however, this could be closed.
This version also included the features of the previously available satellite application Real Jukebox.
Some disappointing features that failed to impress a Windows user base more interested in Microsoft’s resurgent Media Player. As a result RealPlayer 11 is barely remembered by many,
This version was released in November 2007 and was the first release of the software for Mac OS X in 2008. Over the years the software has been enhanced for Mac users so that it is now quite integrated with the operating system, and RealPlayer 11 was the starting point of this.
By 2007 there were many competitors all offering better support for new formats. Remarkably there was no FLAC audio, or OGG support despite the growing popularity of these formats, an omission that is yet to be addressed.
RealPlayer’s most recent incarnation is version 15, released in February 2011. Sadly only revisions to the user interface mark this out as a noticeably different release, with all of the same issues concerning privacy, poor codec support and system resources being repeated.
One enhancement that is a clear sign of the times, however, is the integration of social networking tools, notably the ability to share RealPlayer videos on Facebook and download videos shared by others on the site to RealPlayer. The wisdom of introducing this feature to an application that has failed to defend itself against privacy concerns in the past, however, is questionable.
While there is now a private folder that allows users to collect videos in a password-protected vault RealPlayer 15 still throws advertisements at the user, and uses tracking cookies for various purposes. Fortunately these can be disabled in the Preferences menu, but the question as to why they’re required (after all VLC Player, The KMP Player and many others don’t need to track their user’s inline behaviour) is yet to be answered.
RealPlayer Privacy Issues
There are several users still employing RealPlayer for viewing current and archive files that prefer to use the UK version of the software, which apparently has improved privacy settings.
Whether true or not, the fact remains that this application has for many years touted controversy by tracking users despite having a premium alternative that offers additional features. Concerns over privacy with this app date back to 1999 when it was discovered that information about users and their music choices were being “phoned home” by the application.
Although dealt with shortly after, the application has been accused of failing to accurately inform users about software installed and left behind after uninstallation, while the Message Center pop-up adverts have proved a particular nuisance for users (as of RealPlayer 11 this can be disabled, however).
As a resource hog, RealPlayer is unparalleled among media players, and should only be used if absolutely necessary. RealAlternative is available, offering support for RM files; if you absolutely need to use RealPlayer, consider employing a virtual machine or installing an old version.
Are you still using RealPlayer? Do you swear by the library management system above all others, or would you gladly forget ever having hard the name?