Can Helix Deliver the Real Stuff?

That loud, revving sound you hear is most likely RealNetworks pushing the envelope in its high-stakes race with Microsoft
for control of the digital media sector.

After a surprising
shift
to allow open-source parts of its technology and digital content
to be streamed in a variety of formats, the Seattle-based RealNetworks will get
down to business Tuesday with the first official release of the Helix DNA
Client, which officials say represents “a significant portion of the
technology that
goes into the RealOne Player and other RealNetworks products.”

“This client is the heart of the RealOne player. It’s a media engine that
allows developers to build their own media player. The possibilities for
developers are endless. The code we are putting out there can form the
basis of players for a wide range of environments and platforms,” said
Kevin Foreman, general manager of Real’s big open-source push.

Tuesday’s announcement — which will include a Webcast presentation from CEO
Rob Glaser — is the first of a three-phase Helix plan that includes the
release of the Helix DNA Client, the Helix DNA Server and the Helix DNA
Encoder.

While the client is the universal playback engine supporting the decode and
playback of any data type on any device, Foreman told
internetnews.com the next release of code (sometime in December) will
include the DNA server, which is the core engine for digital media delivery
that would enable developers to build a server for any media format,
including those of rivals Microsoft and Apple .

Foreman said source code from DNA encoder, which is the encoding engine, and
APIs that would lets users
convert video and audio into digital media in a streamlined fashion, would
also be put before the open-source community.

Although it is much too early to speculate on the types of digital media
delivery mechanisms that will be built with Real’s source code, Foreman
joined analysts in hinting at the creation of tools for video conferencing,
telecommunications and patient care applications. “I cannot even fathom. We
expect a bunch of these things to take off. Really, it’s impossible to
predict what kind of ideas will take off,” Foreman said.

Independent developers quizzed by internetnews.com were anxiously
awaiting details of the source code launch, noting that it’s still not clear
exactly what the company would actually make available. At the very least,
they expect a set of digital media APIs to lead to the creation
of media player plug-ins and other custom applications. It is a strategy
already embraced by AOL-backed WinAmp,
which has developed a rabid following among amateur developers.

Yankee Group analyst Paul Ritter applauded Real’s shift in strategy but
warned that developer interest must be high to make it a can’t-miss success.
“I would say that Real’s long term success is not inextricably tied to an
explosive growth in applications and API’s by the developer community, but
it will definitely be an enormous help to Real if that happens,” Ritter
said.

“Communicating success stories and innovative new applications will have to
be an on-going strategy to ensure things don’t start off with a bang and end
with a whimper,” he warned.

Real’s Foreman shrugged off the skeptics, noting that the initial feedback
from developers when the July announcement was made “blew us out of the
water.”


“I’m not going to get into numbers but I can tell you we have our own
internal expectations. And I expect those to be blown away,” he said.

He said developers can look forward to code from the Helix DNA that includes
numerous interfaces for functionalities like Web-based administration,
bandwidth control, access control lists, a high-performance bit pump, RTP
and RTSP, cache configuration, live broadcasting and network optimized file
system.

Based on the Helix DNA, Real’s dream is for developers to create new
applications ranging back-end applications for digital media management and
encoding to applications to enhance digital media playback on any IP-enabled
mobile or consumer device.

Tuesday’s release of the source code also comes with a free software
development kit that lets users write applications direct to the Helix DNA
client. If developers want support for the RealAudio and RealVideo codecs,
licenses for these are available via separate research and development
and/or commercial use licenses from RealNetworks, Foreman explained.

For the an open-source guru’s opinion on Helix, please turn to Page 2

This is a touchy issue with at least one open-source advocate. Bruce
Perens, a self-described “free software evangelist” told
internetnews.com he was skeptical of the RealNetworks move because
the company is not releasing the actual codecs used to encode and decode
software for the proprietary RealAudio and RealVideo formats.

“I think the biggest challenge for Real is deciding what needs to be open
and what needs to be kept proprietary. When it’s proprietary, the open
source community does not have enough interest to work with the company,”
Perens warned. He pointed to Xiph.Org
Foundation
‘s open-source initiative as an example of a project that is
“truly open.”

“If you look at Xiph.org’s Ogg Vorbis and the On2 projects, those are
entirely free codecs for both audio and video. Combining those projects and
some of the things Real is releasing could be potentially interesting. But,
we’re not going to have Real’s codecs for real audio and video. We’re
getting an object file that can be linked in but not the actual code,”
Perens said.

Real’s Foreman described Perens’ observations as “unfortunate” and said the
decision to keep the codecs in-house was deliberately made to avoid distrust
from the open-source community. “We didn’t want to do a bait-and-switch on
the developers. If we stuck the audio or video codecs in there, we risked it
being viewed as a sham and a ploy. We think the engine is much more
important than the codecs,” he added.

Perens expects the response from developers to be mixed. “Again, it depends
entirely on what they’re
actually going to be releasing. I know there are lots of programmers who
work on their own time and would not want to create things for free. They
simply don’t want to be someone’s unpaid employee. On the other hand, a lot
of people work on open source for their businesses and there may be
collaboration that pays for everyone. We’ll have to wait and see,” Perens
said.

Lee Black, who covers digital media for Jupiter Research, has also adopted
the wait-and-see approach. “The big thing now is whether the developer
community will embrace it. This has tremendous upside to RealNetworks.
Getting developers to embrace your product and build in and around it is a
strategy that can work wonders,” Black said. Yankee Group’s Ritter agreed. “Real’s biggest challenge is the fight to
remain financially viable when
competing against Microsoft’s massive campaign to aggressively promote their
“free” digital media software and tools.”

Ritter says Helix is a “very important initiative for Real,” but warned it
is not the only lifeblood of the company. “They are right to be targeting
the enterprise market because our research indicates the compound annual
growth rate of corporate spending on streaming media applications will be
more than 100 percent from 2002 to 2004. The ease of deployment and use of
the Helix server will
be a key driver of corporate adoption and Real will need to do a better job
of communicating that message to enterprise buyers,” Ritter added.

For Perens, anything that offers legitimate competition to Microsoft “should
be encouraged” but pointed to the problems Netscape faced when it ultimately
lost the browser war to Microsoft. “Look at what happened with Netscape.
They’ve been practically wiped off the face of the earth except for Mozilla,
which unfortunately took too long. Real is trying to get something done but
on a different schedule and it’s important they stick around. This is
important. Any credible opposition to Microsoft in the market is important.
Microsoft needs competitors,” Perens argued.

Ritter agreed Real was facing an uphill battle but noted the company had an
incredibly
strong presence in the consumer market, which they continue to grow and
capitalize on. “This continuation in growth will be critical, from a
revenue generation standpoint more than anything else. They’re going to
need huge piles of money to throw at sales and marketing initiatives to
really compete effectively against their rival in Redmond.”

While the latest Real doings are bound to raise the level of the debate up a
notch, developers are keen to see what will actually be included in
Tuesday’s release. For now, this is what is known: The Helix DNA client
will contain support in source code form for the MP3 and AMR data types.

In addition, binary-only support will be provided for RealAudio G2,
RealAudio 8, RealVideo G2, RealVideo 7, 8 and 9. In the future, the company
said it “may be able to release support for SMIL,
JPEG, GIF, PNG, PCM, AVI, WAV, AU, RealText and RealPix.

The code for the DNA client is also expected to support streaming over both
TCP and UDP, to provide support for a wide range of usage models and support
the playback of local files, in addition to Internet streams, for supported
file formats. These formats include 3GPP and RealMedia (binary-only),
according to notes on the Helix
Community
site.

The company said the Helix DNA client would include modules to support audio
mixing, resampling, volume handling and management, windowing and
alpha-blending of multiple visual data types and it is expected to offer
APIs for developers to create plug-ins to support their favorite file
formats or client renderers.

As part of a deal
with Xiph.org
, the DNA client will support the Ogg Vorbis audio codec,
to provide a complete open source
streaming audio player framework.

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