Stop the Presses: Real's Half Step Forward

Founded by Rob Glaser, a former high-level Microsoft executive, RealNetworks has been a highly proprietary streaming media business that seemed to fit the Microsoft mold. Yet RealNetworks' biggest competitor also happened to be Microsoft, which lately had become more and more aggressive in the streaming media business.

In July, RealNetworks embarked on an extreme strategy: they took part of their software open source. Specifically, they announced Helix, a set of tools for streaming and caching “all major media types”, including RealAudio/RealVideo, QuickTime, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, Windows Media and Ogg Vorbis. At the time of the announcement, the server was slated to run on 11 different operating systems, including Linux. RealNetworks claimed that the server, running on Linux, delivered four times the performance of Windows Media Server 8 while delivering Windows Media and Real files simultaneously.

The Real codecs are still available only through a strictly proprietary license. When I interviewed Rob Glaser at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention—on the day RealNetworks announced Ogg Vorbis support—he compared the role of codecs to that of packaging in a shipping system. RealNetworks' business is shipping bits, not packaging them, he explained. Customers can use Real's own packaging, or whatever else they like, such as Ogg Vorbis, QuickTime, Windows Media Player, etc.

At the time of this writing there are two licenses: a proprietary “RealNetworks 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”. This one is described as “similar” to the GPL in respect to certain copyleft provisions, but different in respect to “patent issues”. The company also will license several patents and pending patent applications to the Helix community.

After the announcement, Bruce Perens published a detailed analysis of RealNetwork's plans at that point. He wrote:

  • “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.”

  • “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.”

The announcement drew inevitable comparisons to Netscape's announcement of Mozilla in 1998—after which the project took more than four years to deliver a 1.0 product. “Unlike the Mozilla Project, we do not plan on rewriting everything from scratch”, one Real employee wrote to me.

—Doc Searls

They Said It

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Proprietary data is the root of tyranny.

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