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Linux seller licenses Windows Media technology

Turbolinux, a Japanese seller of the open-source operating system, bridges a philosophical divide by licensing Microsoft technology for playing digital music and video.

Turbolinux, a Japanese seller of the open-source operating system, has bridged a philosophical divide by licensing Microsoft technology for playing digital music and video.

Pragmatism led the company to combine products from the ideologically opposed open-source and proprietary software camps, Turbolinux spokesman Michael Jennings said. The Windows Media format support comes as part of an add-on package with several proprietary software components that Turbolinux announced Tuesday.

"The rationale was that the majority of Japanese Web sites are using Windows Media format. We've had (manufacturing) partners and large customers who have requested us to move that into our product," Jennings said. The technology is available in a plug-in module to the open-source Xine software.

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Historically, open-source advocates have tried to sidestep Microsoft technology or provide compatibility through reverse-engineering, or deducing, the inner workings of Microsoft's software. Providing compatibility with Microsoft technology is a double-edged sword for its rivals--it makes it easier to dovetail with the dominant force in desktop computer software, but it also reinforces its power.

"It obviously helps us for interoperability, (but) I still wish the standards were open," said Miguel de Icaza, a longtime desktop Linux developer and now a Novell technology executive. "That's the biggest the problem we have now for Linux adoption. Microsoft keeps coming up with new protocols and file formats and APIs (application programming interfaces)...and maybe they license the technology, maybe they don't."

Jennings said Turbolinux worked for about six months with Microsoft in Japan and Redmond, Wash., to sign several contracts permitting use of the Windows Media 9 codecs--the coding-decoding engines used to process the media files. However, Turbolinux doesn't support Microsoft's encryption technologies, he said.

Better audio and video support is one issue in the technical, cultural and marketing challenge of making Linux and open-source add-ons a more compelling alternative to Windows desktop software.

Other options
Turbolinux's new software isn't the only way to play the files in Linux. Xine's Web site gives instructions to download the codec used in Windows for playing not just Windows Media, but also Apple Computer's Quicktime and RealNetworks' audio and video formats; the same applies for another media player called mplayer. And Lindows, which sells a version of Linux called Linspire, offers add-on modules for such support.

Turbolinux is based in Japan. It retrenched to that market after the failure of a more ambitious strategy to take on Linux companies such as Red Hat and SuSE with more clout and customers.

The Windows Media support is one of several proprietary technology packages in the new Turbolinux 10F version of Linux, Jennings said. Other such software in the package includes CyberLink's PowerDVD program for playing DVDs; RealNetworks' Real Player for MP3 audio support; Macromedia's Flash plug-in for the Mozilla Web browser, Atok X for entering Japanese characters into a computer; and Japanese fonts from Ricoh.

Turbolinux 10F will go on sale in Japan on May 28 and in the United States on June 30, costing $149, he added. The proprietary software will be available as a $64 add-on in Japan, but only as a part of a complete operating system product in the United States, Jennings said.

Microsoft's motives
Microsoft's licensing moves stem from policies added in January 2003, in which Microsoft began allowing developers for non-Windows platforms to take inexpensive licenses to individual components of its multimedia software. That means that virtually anyone can add support for the underlying Microsoft formats, with or without the companies' content protection tools, simply by signing up through a self-serve Web page.

Turbolinux isn't the first open-source product that will take advantage of Microsoft's recent laissez-faire policy on Media Player licensing. Several other companies, mostly device makers, have also begun integrating the underlying Microsoft audio and video codecs, or format support into their products, a Microsoft spokesman said.

One of those companies is Intervideo, which announced earlier this month that it had signed a license to bring Windows Media support to embedded Linux devices such as set-top boxes. InterVideo, unlike Turbolinux, also licensed Microsoft's digital rights management technology for encryption.

The policies have caused some turmoil in the multimedia world. Backers of the MPEG-4 open standard protested that Microsoft's low prices undercut their own offers, which were up to twice as expensive to license.

When the policies were released, Microsoft executives said they were aimed at allowing digital media--specifically in the Microsoft format--to be seen everywhere, including non-Windows platforms. That's a critical goal for the company, as it continues to woo Hollywood studios, record labels and other content companies to release their products in Microsoft formats.

Royalty revenue
Another motive dovetails with the media strategy: Microsoft has launched a broader program within the company to create a more uniform method for licensing its intellectual property. Turbolinux pays Microsoft a royalty for each copy sold, Jennings said.

Thus far, Microsoft has not talked about making significant money from the licensing effort, but has said it is trying to make better use of its intellectual property portfolio--a move that likely will take the form of more cross-licensing agreements with rivals.

Microsoft's power in the desktop market has complicated its introduction of new technology such as media players. As part of the Department of Justice antitrust case settlement, Microsoft is required to make its technology--such as the server communication protocols--available for license to rivals.

And Microsoft's Media Player distribution methods have been a thorny issue for regulators. The European Union, in a case Microsoft is appealing, ordered the software maker to ship a version of Windows without Media Player.

CNET's David Becker and Ina Fried contributed to this report.