For all the elegance of Apple's popular iPod, there has always been one significant flaw in its setup: if you wanted to purchase music online to play on it (as opposed to just, um, appropriating songs from various file-sharing programs), you had to do so through the company's iTunes music store.
That changed in late July when RealNetworks released a beta version of a technology called Harmony that mimics iPod's copy-protection software. That means the songs sold on its Real Music Store can now also run on Apple's player.
Apple said it was "stunned" at Real's move and has threatened to update the iPod so that Real songs will no longer work on it. But this may be just the beginning for Apple. Several rivals are getting ready to launch competing (and coexisting) products in the next few months that could challenge the iPod's supremacy.
iTunes is a good music shop with some 700,000 songs available for download. But the Real Music Store (available at real.com is a smart alternative, with some 625,000 songs of its own and several unique features. If you're a Beyonce fan, for example, the store will help you find other artists you might like by listing contemporaries, followers and influences. You can also watch more than 1,100 free music videos via the Real Music Guide, vs. about 200 on iTunes. Both stores sell singles for 99¢ and most albums for $9.99, but album prices can vary by a dollar or more. Each store has its exclusives: iTunes sells special tracks by Fleetwood Mac and JoJo, for example, while Real has some unique cuts from Incubus and Bob Marley.
As for the players, the iPod is the most stylish you can buy today, but chic competitors are just around the corner. The Rio Carbon, available in late August for $249, looks like a silver cigarette lighter with curved edges and has 5 GB of memory--1 GB more than the iPod mini for the same price. And Sony's Network Walkman, a 20-GB device with a squared-off design, goes on sale this month for $399. That's $100 more than a new 20-GB iPod, but the Sony is lighter and smaller. Sony claims that the battery lasts for up to 30 hours between charges, vs. about 12 for the iPod. You can't play iTunes songs on it, either--it will only work with songs from Sony's online music store.