Home CES 2011: RealNetworks Steps Past Apple & Google to Offer Cloud-Based Music

CES 2011: RealNetworks Steps Past Apple & Google to Offer Cloud-Based Music

How long have you been hearing about both Apple’s and Google’s much-anticipated cloud music and media offerings? While we spent much of 2010 waiting to see which of the two Internet giants would get there first, another player was lurking in the background and is now stepping into the fray with an offering of its own. RealNetworks, the company behind RealPlayer, previewed Unifi at the Consumer Electronics Show today and we think that its device- and platform-agnostic offering could give the other guys a run for their money.

We sat down with Peter Kellogg-Smith, VP of emerging products with RealNetworks, who showed us around the cloud-based music and media offering that it plans to release in early 2011.

According to Kellogg-Smith, RealNetworks recently surveyed 1,000 of its users and found that difficulties with organizing media between devices and syncing mobile devices were two of the biggest complaints. Many mobile users still have to tether their device to sync, rather than transmitting content wirelessly, leaving photos and music files often stranded on the device where they were purchased or taken. At the same time, these users often own multiple devices and can’t remember where and on what device a piece of content may reside. Unifi is RealNetwork’s attempt at solving this problem and, as an owner of multiple devices, it looked like a tool I would want to use.

Here’s how it works: A “librarian” app catalogs all of your various music and image files, creates a master list and compiles it into a cloud-based master list. This librarian app is a program on your desktop computer and an app on your iPhone, iPad, Android or tablet computer. Each device takes an inventory and reports its findings to this master list. You then choose exactly which content you want made available on the cloud and the service syncs it for you. You can not only control this synchronization directly from the device you’re using, but from a remote device as well. That is, if your laptop is running and connected at home and you’re out with your smartphone, you can look at the catalog, find the media you want on your home computer, and ask Unifi to sync and make it available to you wherever you are. If the laptop isn’t on and running, it will sync that content the next time it is turned on and connected.

The other big feature, aside from syncing to the cloud, is directly downloading content from the cloud to any device for offline access. Essentially, Unifi gives Apple users a way to wirelessly synch their media. The only problem, of course, is that iTunes cannot be used to access this content. Instead, the Unifi app must be used to play or view downloaded content.

“Our goal,” Kellog-Smith told us, “is to be ubiquitous across all devices.”

Indeed, he showed us how a user could buy different parts of the same album across different devices and media stores and then have it show up as a single album within Unifi. In addition to your standard media files, the service will also initially allow users to sync photos from Facebook and Snapfish, with more services on the horizon.

As opposed to the expected cloud media offerings by Apple or Google, Kellog-Smith said that Unifi will allow users the ability to manage all media across all devices and not just in the walled garden of a single platform. Upon release, Unifi will be available for Android and iOS mobile devices, on Google TV and on Windows and Mac devices. The company expects to release apps for both WP7 and Blackberry in the second quarter of 2011. He also said that RealNetworks is in talks with device manufacturers to offer the service as an embedded feature and as an app in connected cars in late 2011 or early 2012.

The app itself will be free with storage up to 2 GB and paid offerings of 10, 30, 60 and 150 GB will be available.

While we’re sure that Apple and Google fans, who have a lot invested in each of these ecosystems, will continue to hold their breath for native offerings, RealNetworks’ Unifi seems to step up the game in terms of cloud-based media services. What do you think? Does Unifi sound like it’s for you?

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