RealNetworks to acquire Listen.com

Let’s hope they don’t screw it up.

I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber for several months now, and I can honestly say that I’ll never buy another CD again (unless Real screws Rhapsody up, anyway).

For those who haven’t heard of Rhapsody, it’s a service that gives you streaming access to tens of thousands of albums from thousands of artists and a first-rate interface to browsing and searching music and discovering new artists and genres. Their catalog isn’t complete, but it’s the most complete of any online music service I’ve tried (they have deals with all five of the major labels). To top it all off, the service is only $9.95 per month, less than the cost of a single CD in exchange for on-demand access to a catalog of thousands.

With Rhapsody, you can literally browse and search through their entire catalog with ease, and with a few clicks, start playing any of their songs in seconds, CD-quality. It is a fantastic service. I’ll go so far as to say that this is the way the music industry is going, whether they like it or not (and the answer here is probably “not” – we’re going to have to drag them kicking and screaming to our piles of money the same way we’ve had to do before).

The only drawback to Rhapsody is that the client is a Windows application, so I can’t run in on my Linux box; however, these days, I have a Windows machine sitting next to me most of the time, so that isn’t a huge problem. If Real does move Rhapsody away from Windows Media and to their own audio technology, that could pave the way for a Linux client, though I’m not holding my breath (RealPlayer and RealOne Player are still “unsupported” on Linux, but I guess they’re available at least).

From the article: “Critics note that its streaming subscription services, which recently added the ability to burn CDs, limit subscribers’ ability to download and listen to music while offline.” Given all the momentum surrounding wireless technologies, this is bound to be a short-term problem; in a few years, my stereo, car, and portable music players will all be on the Internet wirelessly, and I’ll be able to pipe my music to them just as easily as I can pipe it to my computer today. “Offline access” will be intermittent, and it’s a problem we’re going to have to solve for all of our digital content, not just our digital music.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that in five years, when everything is on the Internet wirelessly, CDs will disappear from the face of the earth just like cassette tapes have done since CDs became popular. Who wants to collect hundreds of plastic discs and shuffle them around just to listen to their favorite music? It’s pretty ridiculous once you stop to think about it. Going back to the observation above, to deal with intermittent offline access, would we burn other digital content to CDs, our documents and email and other information, and carry them around with us? No. And once we see the light, we won’t want to do this with our music either.

Mark my words.