Rob Glaser’s Real Legacy: A New Mass Medium, New Markets, and Constant Reinvention

The biggest news in a very busy week around the Seattle technology scene has been that Rob Glaser is out as chief executive of RealNetworks. Glaser stepped down on Wednesday after 16 years at the helm, but he remains chairman of the board and Real’s largest shareholder.

Back in 1994, after leaving Microsoft, Glaser founded Progressive Networks, which changed its name to RealNetworks and became a publicly traded company in 1997. Real is best known for its contributions in digital media, such as RealPlayer and RealAudio multimedia software, the RealGames and RealArcade video game business, and Rhapsody music service. (See a few thoughtful stories about Glaser’s impact on the tech world and the Seattle startup community, in the Seattle Times and TechFlash, and All Things Digital.)

Glaser, 47, has been a controversial figure throughout his time at Real, having earned a reputation as an intense and demanding leader. Some people will no doubt be interested in recent reports that he was “eased out” by Real’s board of directors, or that the value of his stock in the company has gone up by $40 million since he resigned. (He held 51,972,162 shares, or about a 38 percent stake in the company, as of its most recent proxy filing last August.)

But I wanted to start processing the news this week by talking with people Glaser worked with, to get a better sense of the man behind the reputation: his leadership qualities, vision, and impact. Here are some of the thoughts and reactions I’ve gotten so far from former Real employees in the business community.

From Kelly Jo MacArthur, former general counsel and chief of staff at RealNetworks (a 10-year veteran who left the company in 2007):

“Rob is indeed a visionary thinker. Throughout the time I’ve known him, people around the world have sought out his perspective, ideas, and vision. My hope is that we’ll get a lot more of Rob’s vision throughout society. He has a lot of perspective and interest in issues like climate change, and he’s very focused on the set of societal problems we’re facing for the next hundred years. And the opportunities we’ve created through a new mass medium, in the truest sense of the word, that we can all control and inform. It truly gives us the ability to be a much more educated, democratized, communicative, informed world. Which was one of his goals when he first wrote the business plan for Progressive Networks in 1994. The world is there now.

“I don’t know what [his] next thing will be. He must have so many possibilities. He still owns 38 percent of RealNetworks and is the chairman of the board. He cares very, very deeply about everyone at RealNetworks and the success of the company, frankly, less because of his financial interest than because he cares so deeply about the company and the people. I think he’ll continue to play the role of helping Real transform itself and move forward in the future.

“Transition is hard for any leader. But ideally, great leaders understand when their teams are ready and the time has come to let them lead the charge and step into a different place. I think he’ll be productive at Real in a different capacity. The team he has in place is extremely capable. Rob has a unique ability to hire some of the absolutely very best and brightest and committed people. That’s never changed, not in 16 years. The company went through and survived two very, very difficult economic cycles that few companies of its size and resources could. They survived many monumental shifts in the technology industry. They came out on the other side of being in the gun sights of Microsoft.

“I read somewhere this week that Rob is known for taking on big fights, and that’s one of the things that can make him interesting to work for. The challenge, of course, is always to … Next Page »

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