Red Hat Gets Real

by David Penn

For some time, those who claimed a lack of valued applications for Linux could usually be beaten back with lists of quality, if obscure, open-source applications developed by hackers from around the world. But these lists were always best proffered with some reserve. While installing applications such as gxTar or XMMS may be a breeze for most people who have downloaded Linux in the past, many newer computer users whose Linux version came shrink-wrapped (or even pre-installed) may prefer an easier path to the applications they feel they need to best enjoy their machines.

Add to that the perennial compatibility frustration most end users face in the impending, post-Windows era, and you have a significant problem in search of solutions.

Thus, the coming of RealNetworks' RealPlayer 7 for Linux (expected to be available within the next month as a download from the RealNetworks web site), means the major route of media delivery on the Internet can now be easily traversed by Linux users.

Said Matthew Szulik, president and CEO of Red Hat, Inc.: "We are thrilled to see RealNetworks, the acknowledged leader in digital media on the Internet, take a leadership role in growing demand for Linux-based solutions ... These solutions will also greatly ease installation, configuration, operation, and support as well as provide our joint customers with powerful performance and trusted reliability."

RealServer 7.0 will be bundled with Red Hat Linux in the upcoming and subsequent versions of the popular distribution. Service and support for RealServer 7.0 will be "collaboratively provided by both companies", according to a statement from RealNetworks. Marketing will also be conducted on a joint basis.

RealPlayer 7 is the first version of the media-streaming software by RealNetworks that allegedly does not have the ability to track personal user information. Previous versions of RealPlayer transmitted what is called a "globally unique identifier", or GUID, during the registration process. According to a Wired news story published last fall, users who access any site featuring RealAudio or RealVideo streams would also inadvertently trigger GUID transmission.

Many in the Open Source/Linux community also wonder whether RealNetworks' deal with Red Hat means that RealPlayer and other products from the Seattle-based company will be open sourced. A little under a year ago, a group called Free Expression announced a project to create an open-source and Linux-friendly streaming media product, ostensibly geared toward "artists looking to use the Web as a distribution medium". At the time, RealNetworks would not comment one way or another on whether their company would embrace open-source development, except to note their conviction that open-source development seemed to work best as a phenomenon independent of any single company.

Thus far, RealNetworks has not updated their opinion of open-source development with other RealNetworks products.

The consensus view on RealNetworks' bundling of RealPlayer with Red Hat Linux is that the move is an attempt by RealNetworks--the dominant player in streaming media on the Internet--to keep Microsoft's MediaPlayer at bay. In a move similar to Netscape's years ago, RealNetworks has managed to win major market share by offering its RealPlayer software as a free download. However, the operating system dominance of Microsoft, combined with the Redmond monopoly's determination to be a powerful force in an Internet future that pundits say will be filled with streaming media, is the most significant, long-term threat to RealNetworks' dominance in the industry.

But the move is also a significant boon for Linux. With RealNetworks adding its RealPlayer software to Red Hat Linux, the open source operating system may be able to avoid being relegated to second-class status when it comes to the Internet--especially an Internet inundated with streaming media. While there are applications such as XMMS that help Linux users take advantage of streaming media on the Web, having a mainstream product that can access streaming audio and video will help Linux keep up with the quick pace of media deployment on the Internet.

As an aside, RealNetworks has only a month left to fulfill pundit predictions that, given the merger between Yahoo! and rival Broadcast.com, the biggest Internet media streaming company would itself be bought out. Mark Cuban, chairman of Broadcast.com, predicted in March of 1999 that "streaming media will become so important that RealNetworks will be bought within a year or so."

Of course, in those twelve months, it was Broadcast.com that was snatched up, not RealNetworks. Given the sizable percentage of RealNetworks' stock owned by CEO Rob Glaser (42.6%, as of a company filing in 1998) and venture capital partner Accel Partners (7.8%), the company's independence is secure for as long as Mr. Glaser and Accel want it to be.

email: david@ssc.com

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