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Real seeks leg up with open source

Will an open-source version of RealNetworks' streaming media technology be the trick to topple Microsoft's empire? CEO Rob Glaser hopes so.

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Real changes course with open source
Rob Glaser, CEO, RealNetworks
In a glitzy San Francisco hotel meeting room Monday, RealNetworks announced it would enlist the open-source community in the company's long-running battle against Microsoft.

Calling it his biggest move since releasing his first Net audio player seven years ago, CEO Rob Glaser spoke glowingly of the power of individual programmers to help produce stable software. In doing so, he joined a lengthening list of companies bruised by Microsoft competition that have turned to the open-source world for support, opening access to their own protected programming code in return for help.

It's a tactic with mixed results at best. Netscape Communications, Sun Microsystems, and a string of smaller companies have blazed this trail before. The move hasn't necessarily helped those companies' own bottom line--but the growing body of knowledge, code and credibility from the corporate efforts is collectively giving the open-source movement critical resources in its own advance against Microsoft and "closed," or wholly proprietary, software.

"Whenever (established companies) see a larger company doing this, it gives credence to open source," said Bill Claybrook, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group research firm.

RealNetworks' campaign, dubbed "Helix," is stopping short of opening the source code to the actual video and audio compression formats, the "codecs" that comprise its technological crown jewels. But it is allowing outside developers to look at the technology that allows a file to be sent from one place to another online and use it in their own applications.

The company is providing outside developers with two ways of looking at the technology. A "community source" license requires all developers to keep their products compatible, while a "public source" license will allow developers to use the technology more broadly, as long as their own products remain open source. Several of Real's key patents will be licensed automatically to the development community, freely to the public source developers, and with some royalties due from the "community source" side.

Like Sun and Netscape before it, Real is trying to create a community of developers that can build momentum around its technology, acting as bug fixers, brainstormers and advocates of the technology. Its previous battles with Microsoft have largely been over consumers and content companies. The Helix effort opens up a new front.

"We think this will be more like the battle between Java and .Net, where an entire community gets behind a platform," Glaser said Monday, referring to competing technologies for online services from Sun and Microsoft, each of which are competing for developers.

The Real deal?
For their part, open-source leaders are cautiously welcoming RealNetworks' tentative embrace of their efforts. Although they remain distinct from "free software," such as Linux or other related projects, the tools Real provides will be useful in helping those more idealistic multimedia software efforts link up to mainstream technology like Microsoft and RealNetworks.

"We don't want open source to be an island," said Bruce Perens, a free-software movement leader and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative. "There is a lot of content that can't be played" using open-source software, he said.

The free software movement has its own multimedia technology, dubbed Ogg Vorbis, which released its final first version of its MP3 alternative format Friday. Vorbis has gotten good reviews over its nearly two years of development and recently teamed up with On2 Technologies to blend that company's open-source video technology into the free multimedia project.

RealNetworks' work could help those developers solve streaming issues much more quickly than they might otherwise have, open-source advocates said.

Others in the community predict that RealNetworks' move will help trigger similar actions by other companies.

"It is expressive of an underlying trend," said Eric Raymond, a prominent open-source evangelist. As the types of devices needing similar software multiply into mobile, wireless, set-top box and other worlds, individual companies can't keep up with the programming demands. Opening software source code and letting outside developers work on the projects is the only way to keep up, he said. "You're going to see more companies doing this in the future."

But if RealNetworks and other companies are finding comfort in their battle against Microsoft by linking hands with the open-source world, it's far from clear that the efforts are translating into revenue or market share gains for those involved.

The number of people using Netscape or its open-source Mozilla browser--just recently launched in a first final release form--has fallen to just over 7 percent of Web surfers, according to research firm WebSideStory. Microsoft Word hasn't been troubled much by by Sun's StarOffice suite of open-source tools.

Indeed, a slew of smaller companies that had originally pursued open-source strategies have defected to the proprietary software world, finding that community response wasn't forthcoming or that they simply had trouble making money.

"It's a good development model," Claybrook said. "It's not necessarily a good business model."