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RealNetworks besieged by open-source plans

As streaming industry giants and start-ups take aim at RealNetworks, the company finds itself fending off a second open-source development threat from a scrappy band of university students.

As streaming industry giants and start-ups take aim at RealNetworks, the company finds itself fending off a second open-source development threat, this one the product of a small and scrappy band of university students.

The Free Expression Project is revving up with the goal of creating alternatives to RealNetworks products in an open-source development effort.

The project, which so far is the work of just a handful of students, comes as Apple Computer moves part of its QuickTime streaming software into open-source development in an attempt to jump start its stalled efforts to catch up with RealNetworks.

In the open-source development model, a firm or group publishes the underlying source code to a piece of software and makes that code available for use in others' products under the terms of a public license.

For both the Free Expression Project and Apple, a primary motivation in developing open-source alternatives to RealNetworks products is to wrest control of the technology from Real.

"My original goal in starting this was my interest in free speech issues," said Free Expression Project founder Lynn Winebarger, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at Indiana University. "It's a great way to help people distribute their content to other people without being beholden to any corporation. I think the only way to ensure freedom of expression in this area is having the distribution medium held in the public trust."

Apple, too, sounded a populist tone in pitching its open-source effort, with interim chief executive Steve Jobs promising liberation from the "server tax to RealNetworks."

For its part, RealNetworks claims to be unimpressed by the open-source threats amassing against it.

"We're having a hard time seeing what Apple announced as open source," said Pete Zaballos, director of systems marketing at RealNetworks. "They're only releasing certain portions of the code, and they're keeping control of it. And it's not free. Steve Jobs is good with sound bites, but he's not giving anything away for free."

Zaballos compared Apple's plans to the Linux operating system and Apache Web server projects, in which the entire code base is made public and a single company is not the beneficiary of the developers' work.

But Apple emphatically denied Zaballos's account of its open-source plans, saying it has no plans to charge those who use the code.

"We are giving away an entire QuickTime streaming server in open source," said a senior executive who asked not be named. "You can make money on it--you can put it in an IBM server or a Linux box and do whatever you want to do with it. We're giving people an option other than [using Microsoft's streaming products and] running on NT or paying the Real server tax."

Zaballos would not comment on whether RealNetworks has any plans to get into open-source development. But he emphasized that any open-source development effort needs to be independent of a single company and a single company's profits.

"If you look at initiatives like Linux and Apache, I see a lot of promise for that, and one day there will be some relevance to the streaming industry," he said.

At least one corporate-sponsored open-source effort has run into trouble attracting developers; Netscape Communications last year put its browser into open-source development but completed its first year still relying almost entirely on the work of Netscape developers.

As for its other threat from the Free Expression Project, RealNetworks says it welcomes the development of products based on the Realtime Streaming Protocol (RTSP), an IETF-ratified protocol for streaming media over the Internet. RealNetworks' current G2 player is based on RTSP, as is the Free Expression Project's work.

But RealNetworks may have a legal bone to pick with the Free Expression Project if that group tries to reverse-engineer RealNetworks products.

Indeed, Free Expression's notice on legal issues defends the practice of reverse engineering.

Zaballos noted that the RealNetworks license forbids reverse engineering and stressed that the practice is different than building independently starting with an accepted standard.

"CDs play in all CD players," Zaballos said by way of example. "If you took a Sony CD box and reverse-engineered it, you would be taking some of Sony's intellectual [property] with you, and they would not like that. But you can start with the spec, and nobody will get after you for that. Ideally, these guys can create their own version, and one day we can all interoperate with each other."

RealNetworks' lawyers are looking into the matter.