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RealNetworks reveals code in single Helix

The company releases source code to its streaming media technology in a bid to set a single standard for media players--and to take on Microsoft.

    RealNetworks on Tuesday publicly disclosed the software blueprint to its streaming media technology in an effort to take on Microsoft.

    As expected, RealNetworks released the source code to its client software, which includes fully functioning media players for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. The open-source client, which RealNetworks calls the "Helix DNA Client," includes code for the company's RealOne media player and its audio and video codecs.

    "The industry has asked for a single industry-standard media player that supports all file formats and operating systems," RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser said in a statement. "The Helix DNA Client and the Helix community are the answer. We welcome and encourage all developers to freely register on the Web site, download the source code and actively participate to drive this mass medium of Internet broadcasting to the next level."

    The tactic contrasts sharply with those of archrival Microsoft, which guards the blueprints--or source code--to its products as if they were crown jewels. RealNetworks' move could reignite the fierce debate between open- and closed-source advocates. Microsoft contends open-source software is potentially more vulnerable to security problems than code kept out of the public domain, a charge dismissed by open-source advocates.

    RealNetworks also runs the risk that companies could use the source code to develop competing products that could further weaken RealNetworks' position. But the company apparently sees the potential benefit of third-party developer input as crucial to advancing its technology ahead of Microsoft's Windows Media Series 9.

    Seattle-based RealNetworks announced its Helix strategy in July. The company also embarked on a strategy of supporting in its products any digital media format, including Microsoft's Windows Media.

    The Helix code is available under either a "community" license for commercial use or a "public" license for noncommercial use. Developers working with the code for development or research can license the software for free. Distribution of the software without RealAudio and RealVideo codecs is free for the first million units and at a cost of 10 cents a unit thereafter. Commercial distribution of the Helix DNA Client with the audio and video codecs costs 25 cents per unit.

    RealNetworks is touting the lower cost of Helix licensing compared with MPEG-4, the successor to the popular MPEG-2 media format. MPEG-2 in the late 1990s emerged as one of the most popular media formats, preferred by embedded device manufacturers because the technology is based on an open standard available to all technology companies.

    But MPEG-4 had a rocky start this year, in part due to prohibitive licensing fees planned by MPEG LA, the group of companies holding patents on the technology. Apple Computer has bet big on MPEG for driving adoption of its QuickTime 6 streaming media technology. Windows Media Player 9 series does not support MPEG-4.

    If successful, RealNetworks' Helix strategy could gain the company more presence on non-PC and embedded devices, an area where Microsoft has made significant inroads and Apple hopes to maintain a presence through MPEG-4. On Tuesday, the company revealed that Palm OS and Symbian OS developers were working on projects using Helix DNA code. RealNetworks also touted deals with Acer, Hitachi, NEC, Nokia and Philips Semiconductors, among others, that would put either the Helix DNA code or the RealOne player to use in upcoming devices.

    RealNetworks has yet to release its server and encoder code to the Helix community. That release is expected later this year, the company said.