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Linux companies hit play on Real's software

Against the backdrop of Microsoft's media player troubles in Europe, Novell and Red Hat tap an open-source rival.

Linux software makers Red Hat and Novell said Monday that they will begin offering RealNetworks' open-source media player with their operating system products.

The two companies will start bundling RealNetworks' existing Helix Player on Monday and plan to offer upgrades to the upcoming RealPlayer 10 for Linux application when that product is introduced later this year. They also said they would work with RealNetworks to help integrate Helix with their own software. Media player applications allow people to open and run music and video files on their computers.

The adoption of the open-source media software by Red Hat and Novell comes against the backdrop of the European Union's ruling against Microsoft, under which the software giant was ordered to separate its competing application, Windows Media Player, from its flagship Windows operating system. RealNetworks, which is suing Microsoft, played a pivotal role in the EU case, testifying that Microsoft's policy of packaging its media player with Windows constituted an unfair market advantage.

The EU had originally asked Microsoft to introduce by Monday a version of its operating system that did not include the media player, but over the weekend officials postponed that order as the software maker appeals the ruling.

RealNetworks has been pushing hard to make its software the de facto media player for the open-source sector. Over the last year, it has released the source code for its Helix video and audio compression technology and Helix DNA media servers, which support file formats including MPEG-4 and Windows Media. In keeping with open-source practices, developers can use any piece of the Helix technology free for research or license it to produce commercial offerings.

Sony, for example, licensed Helix servers and audio-video compression software for its Altair home entertainment appliance.

Helix is the foundation for RealPlayer 10 for Linux, which includes both open-source components and commercial components such as SMIL, MP3, Flash, and RealNetworks' own RealAudio and RealVideo media formats. The company is already making a test version of the Linux media software, as well as its source code, available to the public.

Industry watchers pointed out that the number of people currently running the Linux operating system on the desktop remains small, but that the Red Hat and Novell deals put Real in a good position to take advantage of future growth.

Al Gillen, an analyst with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, expects that roughly 6 percent of all home desktop users will be running Linux-based systems by 2007, up from 2.7 percent in 2002. The analyst praised Real's approach for bringing its technology to the open-source market and said the company's methods will likely be mirrored by other vendors.

"Real has done a good job of showing how you can work with the open-source community and still bring proprietary technology to the market," Gillen said. "They've been able to make it such that their products become a value-add to open-source technologies, and this has given them a good shot at becoming an important player in the space.