May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Anyone who says that MP3 has made music more fun is either lying or a geek. Most people don’t know where to look for songs on the Internet, don’t have the patience for long downloads, and can’t fathom how to record CDs, much less create personal playlists. To their rescue — though much to the horror of the music industry — comes RealNetworks’ RealJukebox (downloadable at http://www.real. com), free software that helps you find, play, record, and manage music in one truly idiot-proof interface.

Think of this software as a Swiss Army knife for tech-challenged MP3 fans. Stick a CD into your computer, and RealJukebox automatically copies songs to your hard drive as they play. Click on ”Music Library,” and it displays all the music you’ve ever downloaded or ”ripped” from CDs — by artist, album, genre, track, or by playlists you create by dragging songs into folders. Need more? Follow links to MP3 sites, search engines, and stores; RealJukebox’s current promotions showcase new songs by the Offspring and Public Enemy.

The response from cyberindustry watchers has generally been favorable. ”RealJukebox brings it all under one roof in a very nice, very user-friendly way,” says Lucas Graves, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. Don’t expect everyone to feel so chipper, though. Labels and artists won’t appreciate that a simple click can turn off the antipiracy settings — and enable songs to be played on other PCs. And fans will have to put up with their share of imperfections: The software hogs CPU resources — leading to choppy music playback if you have too many other programs running. Hi-fi purists won’t be impressed by the subpar encoding either.

Still, RealJukebox signals the battle for MP3-player market share. Nullsoft, crea-tor of the leading MP3 player, Winamp, will soon release its own all-in-one jukebox. A third product, MusicMatch 4.0, is yet another contender in the desktop arena. But anything competitors do may be moot, since RealNetworks has a known brand name and a huge user base through its audio/ video RealPlayer software: RealJukebox was downloaded one million times in its first 10 days online — an unprecedented vote of support. This probably won’t scare record labels any more than they already should be. But it’s music to RealNetworks’ ears.

Hotlink to The Web Guide at http://www.ew.com (AOL keyword: EW)

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