Getting Wired:Real opens up online media battle

Can RealNetworks beat Microsoft by making key parts of its media players open source?

Can RealNetworks beat Microsoft by making key parts of its media players open source?

Most of the leading open source companies rose to prominence riding the dotcom boom, so it is not surprising that since the dotcom bust many of them have hit hard times. But one of the great strengths of free software is that it is largely decoupled from the companies that try to make money from it.

As a result, things just keep getting better for open source, despite the financial woes of some of its supporters. Recent wins include the Government's official open source policy, which elevates free software to the same status as proprietary software when it comes to selecting programs for public use, and Apache's newly-acquired support for Microsoft's .net - thereby weakening further the case for choosing Microsoft's own Web server over the open source market leader.

The latest convert to the open source way is slightly surprising. RealNetworks has always seemed thoroughly wedded to the idea of proprietary software. Indeed, it looked well on the way to becoming the Microsoft of streaming media, until Microsoft itself began to take the market seriously.

The result has been an increasingly fierce battle for the souls and desktops of streaming enthusiasts around the world, fought along by now traditional lines. RealNetworks was the innovator, more or less inventing the idea of streaming media across the Internet. But Microsoft had the advantage of being able to bundle its own streaming technologies with the dominant Windows platform. In other words, the RealNetworks/Microsoft tussle is largely a replay of the Netscape/Microsoft conflict that culminated in the antitrust lawsuit, currently in the throes of fizzling out altogether.

Perhaps it was the similarity of their situations that prompted RealNetworks' decision to adopt the Netscape strategy of making key elements of its technology open source. After all, it is now widely recognised that it is not possible to beat Microsoft if you play by its rules.

RealNetworks has dubbed its open source initiative Helix. It consists of two major elements: the open Helix platform and the Helix product suite, which includes the new Helix Universal Server. RealNetworks claims the server is capable of more than 10,000 concurrent streams on "standard hardware", but its principal point of interest is that it supports all the main streaming formats: RealMedia, Windows Media, QuickTime and MPeg 1-4.

Merely opening up software is not enough to create open source: you need a community around it too, and RealNetworks has created a site for one - run by CollabNet, a dotcom that seems to have cornered the market in powering high-profile open source communities. There are some useful materials on the Helix community site, including details about the platform and licences.

All this is impressive enough, but it does beg the question of whether it will serve RealNetworks' purpose. It seems clear that the timing of the Helix launch is designed to pre-empt Microsoft's forthcoming announcement of its Corona technologies - officially Windows Media 9, due on 4 September - which are bound to put further pressure on RealNetworks.

Unfortunately, the parallels with Netscape do not bode well. Although the release of the Communicator source code has proved a boon for users, it was not enough to turn the tide against Microsoft in the browser market - or save Netscape.

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