RealNetworks Makes Good on Open Source Commitment

By Brian Proffitt

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Following through on a promise made last summer, RealNetworks has announced the source code availablity of the third and final product in the Helix media system: the Helix DNA server.

The announcement, one of the first to come out of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here, means that for the first time, a completely open-source media content system is available to the general public.

Earlier, RealNetworks had released the source code for its media player and media producer. In October, RealNetworks released the Helix DNA Client source code. In December, RealNetworks released the Helix DNA Producer. Today's announcement completes the set.

RealNetworks has had some challenges getting their product line open sourced, but for the most part, they have been pleasantly surprised at how fast their product has been welcomed by the open source community and by their client base.

A reflection of that high degree of acceptance came in the form of RealNetwork's second announcement: that over 10,000 developers have signed up to participate in the Helix Community project: a number that far exceeded RealNetwork's projections.

"We were figuring a lot less [by this time]," said Dan Sheeran, Vice President of Media Systems.

The third announcement will go a long way towards improving those numbers: the Open Source Initiative has officially approved of RealNetworks Public Source License (RPSL)--the company's own version of an open-source license. With this approval in hand, many more developers who may have been wavering based on licensing principles could join the Helix effort.

The release of the Helix DNA Server is significant news on its own. This software streams MP3, RealAudio, and RealVideo.

According to Sheeran, RealNetworks plans to add support for MPEG-4 after the MPEG-4 systems license terms have been released by the MPEG-4 licensing body, MPEG LA.

Developers can create their own extensions for other media types such as Windows Media and QuickTime, or they can license these extensions from RealNetworks through the Helix Community. Besides Linux, the Helix DNA Server is available for AIX, HP-UX, Tru64, FreeBSD, Solaris, Windows NT, and Windows 2000 operating systems.

The source code for the Helix DNA Server (as well as the other two components of the Helix platform) is available at the Helix Community< Web site . Binaries are also available, but for quality assurance purposes only, as Real will still sell its Helix components as consumer offerings.

According to RealNetworks, the Helix DNA Server will be licensed under both a public source license and a commercial community source license. Both licenses are free of charge for research and development use. The public source license has no royalty for use or distribution; the Community Source License includes a $500/unit royalty for commercial use of the Helix DNA Server inclusive of RealAudio and RealVideo support.

Sheeran, like most of the RealNetworks team, has been very pleased with the response to Helix thus far. The journey has not been without some challanges, however. One of the biggest hurdles has been the condition of the source code itself.

"The realization that all of your comments in the code are viewable by thousands of people," was the way Sheeran described this hurdle. Beyond the potential for releasing electronic graffiti, Sheeran descibed a more fundemental challenge.

"[It's] the fundemental shift in knowing that everything we write is available to developers without access to our original developer team," he explained.

Initially, the RealNetworks team grumbled a bit about all of the extra work entailed in getting the code ready to be open sourced. But, Sheeran continued, that grumbling soon died down when the developers saw the advantages of having bugfixes start flying into the code. Sheeran added that many of the company's developers were "open source developers at heart," so working on something they already believed in helped.

And the payoff, it seems, has been substantial. The volume of response for the Helix Community has been phenomenal to the RealNetworks staff.

"The level of activity has exceeded our expectations," Sheeran said.

More to the benefit of the bottom line, vendors have been taking a strong interest in developing with Helix as well, which translates into more revenue for RealNetworks. In particular, Sheeran said, embedded device firms were stronly looking at the Helix platform, a development that is welcome to RealNetwork's accountants.

Through it all, the company has been amazed at the diversity if the benefits, as developers are expressing interest in taking Helix into projects that RealNetworks would have never imagined the products could go.

"It's fun and exciting to see people doing that," Sheeran said.