RealNetworks' open sourcing gets more real

[PROGRAMMERS REPORT, November 5, 2002] -- Streaming media pioneer RealNetworks made good on a July promise by releasing the source code for its RealOne Player software last week. The company plans to release the source code for its server and encoding software in December.

The release is part of the company's new ''Helix'' strategy, which it announced last summer. The company describes Helix as both a platform and a community organized to ''enable creation of digital media products and applications for any format, operating system or device. In tandem, the Helix Platform and the Helix Community will provide the standard infrastructure to empower developers, IT companies and CE companies to drive the Internet media industry forward into the future.''

Helix is actually a three-fold initiative that includes a standardized platform of digital media products and applications; the community, which ''enables companies, institutions and individual developers to access and license the Helix platform source code''; and the Helix Universal Server, a RealNetworks product that streams all major media types. Representatives at RealNetworks said that more than 2,000 developers and companies have joined the Helix Community since July.

According to Kevin Foreman, general manager Helix, RealNetworks Media Systems Division, the impetus for the initiative came from consumer electronics and mobile systems companies.

''[They] came to us and said, 'We want to figure out how to get real audio and video on our devices, but we want to do it on our own development schedule,''' Foreman told Programmers Report. ''We think this process will be a way to get the devices out there and let great content flow.''

The so-called Helix DNA Client source code -- the core engine powering the RealOne Player -- is now available to software developers, consumer electronics companies and mobile phone manufacturers for use in building their own digital media applications and products. It includes Linux, Windows and Mac OS X-based clients that developers can use to support a variety of media formats, including RealAudio, RealVideo, MPEG-4, MP3, H.263 and 3GPP formats for PCs, mobile and consumer electronic devices.

Some specific elements of the source code include:
* Example user interfaces for Windows and Motif
* Cross-platform, multi-project Python Build System in source code
* Support for MP3 (made available in source code form) and the mandatory 3GPP codecs, NB-AMR and H.263 (H.263 made available in source code form)
* RealAudio and RealVideo codecs in object code form
* RTSP, RTP, RTCP and SDP network playback
* Multicast, UDP and TCP support
* RTSP/RTP cloaking support
* Local file and multiple source playback
* Multiple audio/video source mixing
* HTTP authentication and Proxy Auto Configure support
* RTSP authentication and Proxy Auto Configure support
* More than 600 exposed APIs for building media playback applications, as well as custom data types.

The source code is available for both open-source and community development projects. The RealNetworks Public Source License (RPSL) is structured to provide developers with maximum flexibility in their use of the source code if their products are also open source. RPSL licensees also receive royalty-free licenses to certain key RealNetworks patents. According to the company, the RPSL has been submitted to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for an open-source certification.

The RealNetworks Community Source License (RCSL) is structured to ensure that all products built under the RCSL remain compatible with the Helix interfaces, while enabling licensees to retain control over the intellectual property in the products they build using the code. Licensing of the Helix DNA Client under the RCSL is free for research and development.

''We thought that there was no harm in extending a branch to the very innovative audience out there in open-source areas where we don't always have the resources to go,'' said RealNetworks' Foreman.

Microsoft, whose Windows Media Player comes bundled with its operating systems, has characterized the RealNetworks Helix initiative as a ''ploy.'' Michael Aldridge, lead product manager of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media, told the Associated Press, ''Real is using open source theatrics to try to change the perception among the developer community that they are hard to work with and too restrictive in their licensing terms.''

RealNetworks' Foreman was unwilling to exchange barbs with his company's cross-town rival. ''We don't have an operating system agenda,'' he said, ''which gives us a lot more flexibility to work with Palm and Symbian and Mac. But we're also a Windows fan. We're just trying to solve our own customers' problems.''

According to the company, there are 12 projects currently underway using the Helix DNA Client code. They include ports to the Palm and Symbian operating systems, as well as creation of browser plug-ins for Mozilla and Opera. A full listing of code elements and projects is available at http://www.helixcommunity.org.

RealNetworks pioneered streaming media on the Internet in 1995. More than 250 million users have downloaded the RealPlayer, according to Hoover's Online.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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