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Digital Living Room

Giving Consumers What They Want Before They Know They Want It

February 22, 2001|JON HEALEY |

Several times each week for the last eight months, RealNetworks has left a little gift on some of its customers' computers. It's a free digital music file, usually from an obscure band on an independent label.

The songs go to users of RealJukebox who signed up for its automatic music delivery service, RealNetworks' experiment with "push" technology. Such services aren't widespread today, but they're getting a boost as consumers equip their homes with always-on Internet connections and massive hard drives.

They're not just for computers and the Internet either. Microsoft is building push services into its platform for cable TV set-top boxes, and DirecTV is exploring how they might load shows and pay-per-view programs into subscribers' digital recorders.

All of these services are designed to use bandwidth efficiently and, more important, invisibly. That's what gives them a chance to succeed even as entertainment is heading in the other direction, moving away from centralized programming toward on-demand music and video.

Whether they survive in the long run, however, depends on how well they match the programming being offered to the receiver's tastes. When they deliver what you want, it's the ultimate in instant gratification: You've got what you wanted before you knew you wanted it, so you're probably willing to pay for it. But when the push misfires, it's practically junk mail.

The RealNetworks service aims to appeal to the average consumer stuck with a pokey dial-up modem. It can take a tedious 10 to 20 minutes to download a popular song, and even longer if you insist on cruising around the Web while you're waiting.

RealNetworks slips songs quietly onto users' hard drives while they're online, using software from BackWeb Technologies of San Jose to deliver portions of the songs whenever bandwidth is available. There's a fair amount of unused space even on a dial-up connection--BackWeb calculates that the typical consumer's Internet connection is idle 75% of the time he or she is logged on.

The service delivers two songs per week in genres chosen by the user, such as rock, country and dance. One problem for RealNetworks, though, has been getting music for free distribution from well-known artists, who have balked at providing MP3s with no limits on copying, said Ryc Brownrigg, general manager of consumer software technologies for RealNetworks. That could change as RealNetworks explores new versions of the service, includi ng ones involving subscriptions to other kinds of content--music videos, for example.

BackWeb also powers a video service from Filmspeed and automatic software updates for Compaq and Hewlett-Packard home computers.

The bigger the pipe into the home, the more interesting the possibilities become--particularly when the pipe is connected to a massive hard drive for storage. The satellite TV services both have that capability today in their more expensive receivers, and cable operators are building large hard drives into their advanced converter boxes.

Larry Chapman, president of DirecTV Global Digital Media Inc., noted that many of the system's channels are empty or underused during various portions of the day. That bandwidth could be used to load programs onto the DirecTV receivers with built-in storage from TiVo Inc.

"To cache this stuff and present it to the viewer in a regularly updated form is very compelling," Chapman said. The company could offer an hour or so per day of programming aimed at the masses, or target training videos and other specialized shows to niche audiences.

Other possibilities, Chapman said, include music or video games that could be downloaded to a portable player or game console. "I hope by summer you're going to see us make our forays in that. It might even be sooner," Chapman said.

It's not hard to imagine how the same approach could be used to give consumers on-demand access to entertainment that might otherwise take hours to download. Movie studios could stream an encrypted digital copy of a movie to your set-top box overnight, giving you the choice the next day to watch it at your leisure (for a fee, of course) or delete it. Record companies could load an advance copy of a new CD onto your computer, letting you listen to it once before deciding whether to buy and keep it.

Such music services are already in the works, although there are copyright issues still to be ironed out. A number of the online music storage services are eager to push song selections at their customers, and they'll have an extremely good idea what those music fans like to hear. After all, they'll know everything in their customers' online collections.

Times staff writer Jon Healey writes about the digital living room.

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