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Real: Baby steps toward freedom

Open Source Initiative co-founder Bruce Perens writes that RealNetworks is off to a good start in opening up some source code, but it needs to go further if it wants to block Microsoft's advance.

    The news that RealNetworks plans to release some of its software as open-source, or free, software caught a lot of people off guard.

    I was surprised to read the RealNetworks press invitation listing me--a co-founder of the Open Source Initiative--as one of the industry execs scheduled to attend its big announcement on Monday. Earlier, I had told the company not to expect an endorsement. Maybe this is a harbinger that RealNetworks will be able to deal with the open-source community on the community's own terms after all.

    Although the code being released does not include RealNetworks' "crown jewels"--the encoding and decoding software for its proprietary RealAudio and RealVideo formats--the move still marks a significant contribution to open source.

    The company is obviously under pressure from Microsoft, and would like to prevent Microsoft's Media Player product from achieving market domination.
    What is RealNetworks' motivation for taking this step? The company is obviously under pressure from Microsoft, and would like to prevent Microsoft's Media Player product from achieving market domination. Increasing openness is a weapon in that battle. The thinking is that fostering the perception of openness will make more people consider RealNetworks applications as standards rather than as simply products.

    Let's take a closer look at what's going on.

    RealNetworks will release the code underlying its multimedia player software in 90 days, though certain details may change before then. The "client engine," which lives in the desktop or the Web browser and drives the client half of the codec, will be available under a license that is derived from the Apple Public Source License, but with goals much closer to the GNU General Public License.

    This license is unlike the GPL in that it gives one party more rights than all others. It has yet to be approved by the Open Source Initiative board, or accepted by the Free Software Foundation, or even fully reviewed by yours truly. It may have to be modified before it is worthy of acceptance by the open-source community.

    Many of the client pieces released will likely be applicable to servers and encoders as well, although RealNetworks is not placing its server and encoder engine in open source. The combination of the open-source player with RealNetworks' proprietary codecs will produce a player for the RealAudio and RealVideo formats on new platforms where no player existed before.

    Wizard of Ogg?
    Perhaps the greatest beneficiary could be the Ogg Vorbis audio format. Ogg is a fully open-source codec, unencumbered by patents or royalty payment requirements, which offers audio quality that's on a par or better than its proprietary competitors.

    The Ogg encoder and servers are available as open source. The addition of RealNetworks network protocols and other utilities might improve Ogg even further, ultimately opening the door to the inclusion of Ogg as an option in RealNetworks' proprietary products.

    RealNetworks' server and encoder engine--sans the actual codecs--will become available under a community-source license. This means that source code will be disclosed to people who sign agreements first. But those people will get a lot less than the full set of rights that usually come with open-source licenses. Since other streaming servers and encoders are already fully open source, we can't expect the open-source community to have much to do with this part of RealNetworks' code.

    However, community-source licensing does make life easier for RealNetworks' partners, whose business depends on this code and who, until now, might not have had source code.

    The RealAudio and RealVideo codecs will be available in compiled form, as proprietary software that can be linked into a larger product. Again, no joy in the free software camp. However, these codecs will be available for use along with various open-source pieces that RealNetworks is releasing. Thus, third parties will have an easier time producing a half-proprietary Real format player under Linux or other operating systems where none is currently supported.

    But RealNetworks may not be able to afford to be open enough. It depends on licensing fees for the use of its software.
    But RealNetworks may not be able to afford to be open enough. It depends on licensing fees for the use of its software. Unless the company can modify its business models, it will be difficult for it to achieve a real partnership with the open-source community.

    That community has little to gain by replacing Microsoft's proprietary audio format with RealNetworks' still-proprietary audio format. The free software folks will continue to develop Ogg Vorbis and other solutions, although perhaps in a way that is more compatible with RealNetworks' proprietary software.

    That's why I consider the announcement to be only a first step for RealNetworks. Additional steps will be necessary if RealNetworks' Chief Executive Rob Glaser is to succeed. I hope he does, but my role in this is not to endorse; it's to explain what's going on from an open-source perspective.

    Some of the announced pieces of RealNetworks' software will be open source, but many will not. Thus, I can't fully approve of what is going on. I will continue to lobby RealNetworks to follow Monday's step by going fully open. In the meantime, I will have to urge developers to continue to use fully open codecs in preference to the ones offered by RealNetworks.