RealNetworks shares code, streams Windows format

RealNetworks unveiled new software that can distribute streamed audio and video in a range of formats, including rival Microsoft's Windows Media format, and announced a shared source code initiative that is backed by a slew of industry players.

The media delivery platform, called the Helix Platform, is based on the company's current client and server software that allows content to be delivered over the Internet or a network from a server to desktop PCs and other computing devices. Two years in the making, the platform is the first to support the range of commonly used technologies and applications, such as MPEG-4 and Windows Media, analysts said.

RealNetworks unveiled its first product based on the Helix Platform, called Helix Universal Server, at a press conference here. The promise of the server software is that it removes the need to set up multiple servers to deliver various media formats to end users, allowing content providers to consolidate their Internet media servers onto a single platform, said Rob Glaser, RealNetworks' president and chief executive officer, during the Monday press conference.

Streaming services allow users to listen to audio or watch video over a data network without having to wait for an entire file to download, and can be used for broadcast or on-demand delivery.

Organizations that stream audio and video over the Internet today often have to install multiple servers to offer their customers a choice of formats. The most popular formats are Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime, Microsoft's Windows Media and RealNetworks' RealAudio and RealVideo. Helix Universal Server supports more than 55 media types, including those popular formats.

Content delivery provider Speedera Networks Inc., in Santa Clara, California, is one of 25 partner companies throwing its support behind the Helix platform. The company provides Web content and media streaming services to such customers as Gateway Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

"We have many, many stacks of server software for many, many (media types) all over the world. This gives us the option to consolidate," said Steve Lerner, vice president of media technology with Speedera.

Having access to the source code of the technology will additionally allow potential customers such as Speedera to fine-tune the software for specific needs, Lerner said.

In a demonstration Monday, RealNetworks set up a Helix Universal Server on an Intel server running the Linux operating system, and was able to deliver the same media stream to a Real One player installed on Windows PC, a QuickTime player installed on a Mac OS X computer, a Windows Media player installed on a Windows PC and an iPaq handheld computer.

RealNetworks, in Seattle, claims that its Universal Server performs better than RealNetworks' own RealSystem 8 and Microsoft's Windows Media Server.

The support for Windows Media formats could spark a legal fight between RealNetworks and Microsoft as RealNetworks did not take out a license from Microsoft for its Windows Media format, but recreated the technology by investigating Windows Media streams. Microsoft and RealNetworks have been battling for market share in the streaming media market.

Glaser explained that his company hasn't actually reproduced the Windows Media technology for encoding and decoding files, rather it recreated the method for transmitting Windows Media files from a server to a client. All the work it did was legal and accomplished through negotiations with partner technology companies, Glaser said.

"Everything we did, we did in a clean-room environment," he said.

RealNetworks also announced the Helix Community, a shared source initiative intended to allow customers to adapt the software to meet their needs. Online at http://www.helixcommunity.org, the site will be a source for companies, institutions and individual developers to access the Helix Platform source code, which includes the Helix server, encoder and client products. The source code access will enable them to build their own versions of the software from scratch, as well as enhance the overall platform, said Brad Hefta-Gaub, vice president of product development at Real Networks.

"We expect to mostly see (the source code) used for fine-tuning systems," Hefta-Gaub said.

The Helix Community will offer two licenses under which developers will be able to view and modify the source code -- the RealNetworks Community Source License (RCSL) and the RealNetworks Public Source License (RPSL). Products developed under the RCSL have to be compatible with Helix, while software developed under the RPSL has to be open source, RealNetworks said.

The company has made drafts of those licenses available on the Helix community Web site for outside review. Once it gathers industry comments, RealNetworks said it plans to submit the RPSL to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for certification as an open source license.

RealNetworks plans to make the source code of its Helix client available to the Helix Community within 90 days, followed by the server and encoder source code by the end of the year, the company said.

RealNetworks' shared source initiative is supported by twenty-nine companies, including CollabNet Inc., Red Hat Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp., Sony Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., and Hitachi Ltd., RealNetworks said.

The open platform for media distribution is a boon to device makers that are working to bring audio and video to their products.

For instance, there are few applications currently available for Palm OS-powered handheld devices that allow users to watch or listen to streaming audio and video, said PalmSource Inc. Chief Executive Officer David Nagel.

"We certainly expect acceleration of new applications now that a toolkit is available to bring streaming media to Palm devices," Nagel said.

Helix Universal Server is available today, and can be installed on hardware running 11 different operating systems. Pricing is based on rated capacity measured in megabit per second, and ranges from US$2,400 to $42,600. A free trial version is available for download from the Helix community Web site.

RealNetworks also released Helix Producer, software to encode media into RealNetworks' formats. The basic edition of Helix Producer is available as a free download. A premium edition version of the software costs $199, the company said.

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