RealNetworks is using portions of Mozilla.org's open-source browser code in a private-label version of its media player and server created for Web broadcaster Global Media. This version lets RealNetworks' system stream and display Web elements including HTML and Macromedia Flash animation files.
As more audio and video content makes its way to the Web, hybrids such as the Global Media player are likely to erode distinctions between browsers and media players. Microsoft is already enlisting its market-leading Internet Explorer browser in efforts to close RealNetworks' enormous lead in a heated battle for control of the streaming media player and server market.
By incorporating browser functions into its media player, RealNetworks could theoretically counter efforts by Microsoft and others to build streaming functions directly into browsers.
In its present form, Global Media's player lets Web radio stations and other content providers use Flash and HTML elements to create player interfaces with their own look and feel, much as the "skins" do made possible by Microsoft's latest version of the Windows Media Player.
But Global Media's plans for the product promise to take the graphical trend one step further, turning the player into a de facto Web-browsing vehicle.
"Everybody talks about whether or not RealNetworks is trying to be a media player or a browser, but that doesn't concern me," said Winston Barta, Global Media's vice president of business development. "We can send Web pages through our Real server into the player window, and that's the direction we're going.
"This is the Real system on crack," he added.
Barta said that standalone Web browsers have "enhanced functionality" that Global Media wants to use. But he said the company has concrete plans to use the RealNetworks' system to serve Web pages that would let his company's clients--radio stations and other multimedia content sites--complete purchase transactions through the player interface.
RealNetworks denied that it has any designs on the Web-browsing market and said the HTML-reading capability in its custom build for Global Media was not planned for its own version of the player.
"Are we turning our player into a browser? There is zero intention to do that," said Ben Rotholtz, general manager of systems and tools. "Our system is capable of streaming anything. The fact that we're picking up HTML as a data type just shows how rich (our system) is, but there's zero value in our becoming a browser. We're really focused on multimedia."
Analysts said prospects for a Web-browsing media player are mixed.
"In this area of audio content delivery, simplifying the tools
"But there's a fine line to tread here, because devices that do too many disparate things are not successful from a consumer point of view. General Web browsing is a little different," he said.
A boon for Mozilla
Whatever RealNetworks' intentions for Web-browsing capabilities, the company's participation in the Mozilla software development effort is a big win for the organization.
Mozilla, the first and highest-profile open-source project launched and funded by a corporation, relies both on paid employees of America Online unit Netscape Communications and on volunteer companies and individuals to develop the source code, or underlying software, of Netscape's Communicator browser.
Volunteers--and anyone else, for that matter--can use the results of the collective development effort under the terms of a free public license. But the organization has had trouble getting outside help since its founding two years ago.
In recent months, however, Mozilla has staged a rally in attracting developers not on the AOL payroll, including people from IBM, Intel, Liberate Technologies, NetObjects, Nokia, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems.
"RealNetworks' adopting the Mozilla code is a great example of the use of the code in a range of products and appliances," said Mitchell Baker, whose title is "chief lizard wrangler" for Mozilla. "It's also a great example of the development momentum and involvement that is going on presently."
The system RealNetworks created for Global Media will use Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser if it is installed on a person's computer and will download the Mozilla-based browser otherwise.
RealNetworks has come under pressure to open its own software, but Rotholtz said the company has no intention to do that beyond continuing to offer application programming interfaces--programming shortcuts that let developers build on top of applications such as the RealSystem.
Rotholtz did offer a ringing endorsement of Mozilla's open-source effort, however.
"It's a great cause," he said. "Thanks to Mozilla, people have been able to go out and build new solutions and extend the world of what people are able to do on the Web. One company alone does not move the Internet along as the next mass medium."
RealNetworks' modifications to the Mozilla source code can be downloaded here.