RealNetworks (NASDAQ:RNWK) could be poised to land a whole lot of fresh subscribers, thanks to a partnership with Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO). We're moving ever closer to the "play anything, anywhere, whenever you want it" ideal, and this particular deal is a giant leap in the right direction.

Now you can seek artists in Yahoo! Search and immediately play a selection of that artist's hits without leaving the results page. Full songs for free, no strings attached. Click through to "More Bruce Springsteen songs," for example, and you get a list of 494 tunes. Most of them offer a 30-second sample ... but you could just pay $12.99 a month for full access to the entire 5-million-song catalog of Real's Rhapsody service.

It's a very appealing and slightly sneaky way to draw consumers into a paid business relationship. Suppose I'm intrigued by the mysterious name "Kent" on a full tracklist of Activision's (NASDAQ:ATVI) Guitar Hero: World Tour songs. I run a quick Yahoo! search for Kent, which brings up boatloads of free samples. The Guitar Hero track isn't there, but I've heard enough to know I'd like to hear more. A few clicks later, I'm signed up for Rhapsody.

This little example illustrates both what's good about the Rhapsody/Yahoo! partnership, and what's not quite up to par yet. The process of moving from curiosity to an informed purchase decision is streamlined, with incentives for consumers at every step. That's the good stuff, and it may be enough to raise Rhapsody's stature in the music market and boost Yahoo! Search's profile as a source for music information. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) doesn't yet have an answer for Yahoo!'s full-song samples.

But the shortcomings remain obvious. Rhapsody's subscription service still doesn't work with the market-leading Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPod series of music players. You have to resort to lesser brands like SanDisk's (NASDAQ:SNDK) Sanza or Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Zune to take those millions of songs on the road. And 5 million songs still ain't enough to cover every conceivable desire -- Kent's Vinternoll2 isn't even in Apple's 8-million-song iTunes library.

So Yahoo!'s new abilities are a great advance for music searches in general, and RealNetworks' business prospects in particular. But there's still plenty of room for improvement. The digital music revolution isn't over yet.

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