Helix Must Not Leave Open Sourcers Stranded

While RealNetworks did its best to upstage Microsoft Monday with the release of new digital media software, Helix, one open-source guru explained what it means for the open-source community. Meanwhile, analysts commented on RealNetworks’ ambitious play.

Bruce Perens, a self-described “free software evangelist” and the senior strategist of Linux and Open Source at HP, dissected the Seattle software maker’s move on his Web site Monday.

While developer community groups such as CollabNet and the Open Source Initiative applauded RealNetworks’ move, Perens refused to fully embrace the strategy at this stage, noting that while RealNetworks “is making a significant contribution to Open Source, today’s release does not include the “crown jewels” — their “codecs”, the encoding and decoding software for their proprietary
RealAudio and RealVideo formats.”

Perens said the RealNetworks server and “encoder engine”, without the actual codecs, will be under a “community source” license.

“This means that source code will be disclosed to people who sign an agreement, and those people will get a lot less than the full set of rights that come with Open Source licensing. 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 does make life easier for RealNetworks partners, whose business depends on this code and who might not have had source code until now,” Perens said.

He added: “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 Real is releasing, and thus it will be easier to for third parties to produce a half-proprietary Real-format player under Linux and on other operating systems where one is not supported today.

Perens further discussed the impetus for RealNetworks’ move Monday, which came a week after Microsoft unveiled its Windows Media 9 version. He said RealNetworks is under fire from Microsoft, which is gaining market share with its Windows Media Player. Turning to open source, then, is both a counterattack and a defense mechanism.

“Increasing open-ness is a weapon in that battle, because a perception of open-ness will make more people consider RealNetworks products as standards rather than just products,” Perens said.

Analysts weigh in

Jupiter analyst Matthew Berk agreed. “It really is a [digital media] arms race,” Berk told internetnews.com. “Historically, the moment you open source something, you are declaring ‘check’ against your competitors. You send a great message saying that the technology has been commodified and that we can compete with you on other grounds.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out,” Berk said. “And I bet Microsoft will gently intimate that [Helix] doesn’t work well with the Windows format.”

But will purveyors and supporters of unbound software code trust a company known for the proprietary nature of its technology? Berk said RealNetworks’ traditionally proprietary nature should make open-source aficionados rush to the table even quicker. “They’re going to want to see what’s in [the licensing schemes].”

Aberdeen Group senior analyst Michael Hoch told internetnews.com the announcement to release the source code under community source and open source licenses may provide greatly increased access to a mature and stable product.

“That access may accelerate time-to-market for applications that use digital media, or even cultivate competition for RealNetworks to its RealOne services offering,” Hoch said. “Even the initial release of the application programming interfaces (APIs) could increase usage of digital media in other applications.”

While these ideas may be encouraging, Hoch said RealNetworks has to take care to follow up on its open-source promise.

“The open source community is known for its anti-corporate tendencies, and is highly skeptical of any “contribution” from established software vendors,” Hoch said. “RealNetworks has one chance to get this right, or it will lose any nominal faith already gained in this open source community.”

There is another hurdle, Hoch said. Competition and open-source exultations aside, Hoch wonders if there are enough entrepreneurs left in the market to take advantage of the Helix source code and product sets.

“From the supply side, software companies need available cycles in order to innovate on the Helix technology — cycles currently occupied by efforts to keep the business afloat — and VCs are currently very stingy with any available capital. From the demand side, the current economic climate has halted most IT spending this year, with only essential and mission critical projects getting the green light. It is debatable as to how high digital media ranks as a corporate priority.”

Indeed. Then there is the issue of how Helix meshes with the business model for RealNetworks, which Perens addressed in his analysis.

“RealNetworks may not be able to afford to be open enough – their revenue today depends on licensing fees for the use of their software, and unless they can change their business model somewhat, it will be difficult for them to achieve a real partnership with the Open Source community,” Perens noted. “That community has little to gain by replacing Microsoft’s proprietary audio format with RealNetworks still-proprietary audio format.”

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