RealNetworks promises iPod lockout fix

Apple Computer Inc. has updated the software for some of its iPod music players so that songs bought from RealNetworks Inc. won't play. RealNetworks says they're not sure why it's happened, but they're working on a fix. Apple suggests that it's what to expect if you use music that isn't officially supported on the iPod.

The RealNetworks Music Store competes directly with Apple's iTunes Music Store, but RealNetworks suffers a disadvantage: RealNetworks doesn't have its own music player, as Apple does with its market-dominating iPod. Although the iPod supports different music formats, the only protected format it works with is the music sold through the iTunes Music Store.

In July, RealNetworks announced a solution: Harmony, technology that lets protected music downloaded through its store play back on the iPod -- or any other digital music player. Apple responded by accusing RealNetworks of using "the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod," and said it would investigate possible legal action against RealNetworks.

Apple doesn't deny that the recent iPod software update deactivated some players' ability to play Harmony-enhanced songs. But the company also offered no explanation for why it happened or even if the software update was aimed specifically at RealNetworks' customers.

"As we stated in July, we strongly caution Real and their customers that when we update our iPod software from time to time it is highly likely that Real's Harmony technology will cease to work with current and future iPods," an Apple spokeswoman said Wednesday. She declined to comment further.

RealNetworks offered its own explanation.

"Apple has made some changes to FairPlay," said RealNetworks Inc. spokesman Matt Graves. FairPlay is the Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology Apple uses to protect music sold through the iTunes Music Store. It's the iPod's support of FairPlay that enables it to play iTunes Music Store songs.

"It's not clear that they've done that specifically to break Harmony or just as a by-product," Graves said.

Graves told MacCentral that his company was working on a change to Harmony that would restore compatibility with affected iPods. He wasn't able to provide a time frame for when the fix would be released, however. "Any time there are changes made to FairPlay we have to evaluate it to see how Harmony works with it," said Graves.

Joris Evers contributed to this report.

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