RealNetworks today announced Rhapsody.com, a beta launch of a browser-based version of its Rhapsody streaming music subscription service for broadband users in the United States. Previously, the Rhapsody service was restricted to users running a Windows-only jukebox application; the new browser-based version opens popular features of the service to Mac and Linux users for the first time. Unlike Apple's iTunes Music Store, where users purchase and download individual tracks, Rhapsody users sign up for streaming audio service via the Internet. Subscribers paying for the Rhapsody Unlimited service can stream as much audio as they like for the $10 per month subscription charge; needless to say, users lose access to the music if they cease subscribing to the service, and there's no support for iPods, other portable music players, or any household digital music players for Mac and Linux users.
With the launch of Rhapsody.com, any user can - for free - stream up to 25 songs a month on-demand, as well as listen to 25 commercial-free streaming "radio" stations classified by theme and genre. Rhapsody carries over 1.4 million tracks from the five major music labels as well as independent distributors, so RealNetworks has enabled free streaming access to a big library of commercial music, no doubt hoping users will be so taken with Rhapsody - and that the company will earn enough advertising revenue from the browser-based player - that they'll eventually come out ahead.
To access Rhapsody.com, users must sign up (providing an email address, ZIP code, and year of birth, but no credit card info) after installing the Rhapsody Player Engine - a browser plug-in. Real says they support Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher using Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari: installation failed spectacularly for me under Firefox 1.5, but installation using Safari worked fine, and thereafter Rhapsody.com was also accessible via Firefox. Aside from installation, audio quality via Rhapsody seems somewhat variable and the browser-based interface offers some amusing glitches (it's currently crediting every song in the '60s Pop station to Jan and Dean), but, even as a beta release, Real's move increases pressure on Apple to consider streaming and subscriptions options for its iTunes Music Store.