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RealTime IT News

RealNetworks Throws Down Digital Media Gauntlet

A week after Microsoft trumpeted its new Windows media software, RealNetworks Monday launched a counterattack in the form of new digital media software that pipes audio and video in a range of formats -- including Windows Media.

The software, dubbed "Helix," is targeted for the enterprise, specifically for businesses who wish to send audio and video to customers and employees in a variety of formats. With a set of more than 1,000 application programming interfaces for building media applications, it also marks an open-source approach by a company known for keeping its software proprietary.

The products

Unveiled under the Helix moniker is the Helix Universal Server and Helix Universal Gateway, which supposedly stream and cache all major media types -- including RealAudio/RealVideo, Apple's QuickTime, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and Windows Media.

Based on data it culled from research firm KeyLabs, RealNetworks claimed that Helix marks a 100 percent improvement over RealServer 8, delivering over 11,000 simultaneous streams. Moreover, it said Helix delivers 400 percent more Windows Media streams than Windows Media Server on the same hardware.

Also on tap is the Helix Producer, a GUI-based production tool used to convert live and prerecorded audio and video to RealAudio 8 and RealVideo 9 formats for live broadcast, on-demand delivery and download.

Features of the new production tool include:

  • RealVideo 9 -- the gold release of the latest, video codec technology offering 30 percent improvement over RealVideo 8 and the same quality at half the bitrate of MPEG-4
  • RealAudio Surround -- provides a multi-channel audio experience by preserving embedded surround sound audio
  • GUI batch processing to queue multiple encoding jobs to execute sequentially with no programming or scripting
  • Multiple destination support to send encoded output to multiple servers and or file

The strategy

RealNetworks' strategy hinges on its belief that content delivery outfits will embrace one system that supports multiple types of data. To that end, it has sought to solve compatibility issues with the disparate and vigorously competitive standards, both proprietary and open-source.

In fact, RealNetworks established the Helix Community to address challenges faced by the digital media industry, "including the cost and complexity of supporting multiple formats and architectures, the cost of developing applications in the absence of standardized application interfaces; and the looming increase of these complexities as Internet-delivered media moves beyond the PC to mobile and home devices."

It is RealNetworks' wish that developers and technology companies gain access to millions of lines of source code providing a wide variety of capabilities needed to build digital media products through the Helix Community. The concern has rendered two licensing schemes: aRealNetworks Community Source License (RCSL), which is structured to ensure that all products built under the RCSL remain compatible with the Helix interfaces; and a RealNetworks Public Source License (RPSL), which is structured to provide developers greater flexibility in their use of the source code.

After incorporating input from third parties, RealNetworks will submit the RPSL to Open Source Initiative (OSI) for certification as an open source license. RealNetworks intends to make initial client source code -- the Helix DNA Client -- available for the Helix community available within 90 days. This will be followed by server source code in subsequent months.

Participants under the RPSL may obtain royalty-free patent licenses, and participants under the RCSL will gain patent rights under the royalty schedule associated with the RCSL.

"It's great to see RealNetworks recognizing the power of open source," said Eric S. Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative. "They'll get the reliability and security benefits of peer review, and they are contributing an important capability to the Internet infrastructure."

RealNetworks announced broad support for its newly-announced endeavor as well. Twenty-nine companies and organizations are supporting the Helix Community: BSquare, CollabNet, Cisco, Hitachi, HP, Intel, Lindows, nCUBE, NEC, Network Appliance, Nokia, Openwave, Opera, Oracle, PalmSource, Phoenix Technologies, Pinnacle Systems, Red Hat, Sony Corporation, Speedera, Sprint, ST Microsystems, Sun Microsystems, Symbian, Tao Group, Texas Instruments, TiVO, Volera and Xiph.org Foundation.

"The Helix initiative will provide our Palm Platform developer community the ability to bring new and innovative media products to Palm Powered devices, leveraging the RealNetworks' technologies," said David Nagel, President and CEO of PalmSource. "We expect that this will accelerate the use of streaming media applications in future mobile devices."

RealNetworks Vs. Microsoft

Monday's news comes at a crucial time for RealNetworks. Not only has Microsoft unfurled its most powerful media software to date, with virutally no buffering, but the software giant is watching its subscriber base for Windows Media grow. According to Jupiter Research, RealNetworks' RealOne Player had a 29.1 percent share of media players, while Microsoft's Windows Media Player had a 28.2 percent share.

Interestingly, it appears the RealNetworks is conscious of the fact that the software will draw Microsoft's attention -- and possibly its legal ire -- because RealNetworks has created a version of the Microsoft Media Server software that comes with the Windows operating system.

According to the The New York Times, Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of the Seattle-based RealNetworks, said his firm's engineers studied the data that was sent between the Microsoft media server software and the Windows Media Player program and recreated the technology needed to play files in the Microsoft format. The developers built the software without any knowledge about the underlying program.

Microsoft told the Times it will not comment until it sees the technology.