RealNetworks' Open-Source Strategy: Talking Infrastructure with Rob Glaser
Rob Glaser founded RealNetworks and launched the Internet streaming industry in 1994. That's the same year Netscape was born, Linux hit version 1.0 and Linux Journal came out with its first issue. Microsoft wouldn't announce its free browser until late 1995. Napster and the worldwide MP3 file sharing craze were half a decade away.
From the beginning Real was primarily known as a consumer-oriented company, with zero overlap between itself and the Open Source community. The company ran a highly proprietary streaming media business that seemed to fit the Microsoft mold, partly because Rob Glaser was a former Microsoft executive.
But RealNetworks' biggest competitor also turned out to be Microsoft, which seemed determined to dominate streaming media the same way it dominated operating systems, office suites and other categories.
And meanwhile the marketplace came up with its own indomitable developments. On the server side there was Linux. On the client side there was massive peer-to-peer .MP3 file sharing. Connecting two were a growing number of cheap or free MP3 streaming systems, many of them running on Linux.
So RealNetworks faced a choice: Bow to Microsoft, or side with the geeks who were busy transforming the marketplace underneath everybody.
Real went with the geeks, and now streaming media is a whole new ball game.
The move came in late July, when RealNetworks announced Helix, a major open source project that would expose untold $millions in development effort over the last eight years to the marketplace.
The move did not come as a surprise to Linux Journal. RealNetworks is a Seattle neighbor, and we've been hearing for years that RealNetworks had long been a Linux company on the inside, with plenty of internal developers who have been eager for the company to join the open source conversation.
And now they have.
The week after the announcement, RealNetworks was a major presence at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego, where I had a number of conversations with Rob Glaser and other RealNetwork executives.
Prior to those conversations I had been talking with Tim O'Reilly about the whole issue of infrastructure -- a subject about which I had done a lot of thinking-out-loud, both in Linux Journal and in speeches like the one I had given in June at JabberConf in Munich (Tim and I are both on the Open Source Advisory Board of Jabber, Inc.). Tim asked me to give the same speech at OSCon, which I did, on the day after Tim spoke with Rob Glaser on stage during lunch. It was after that lunch that I gathered with a few other people from RealNetworks for our own conversation.
That one picked up where Tim's had left off, and turned quickly to the infrastructure subject. So I shared some slides from the talk I was going to give the next day, since it seemed to me that RealNetworks was telling an infrastructure story. The early part of that conversation was facilitated to some extent by those slides, which in turn were influenced by that same conversation.
Good conversation is like that. Movement happens. That's the idea behind this report.
What RealNetworks did with Helix is brand new and still working itself out. RealNetworks is inviting our community's participation, and I think we should give them the benefit of various doubts as long as the company and the new Helix Community is open to our input. And I see nothing so far to suggest that they aren't.
Background: Here is a report by Sam Williams, author of O'Reilly's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software.
Rob Glaser: I'm really thrilled to be here and working with you all.
[About the announcements...] First, we introduced the next generation of our platform for media delivery, which is called Helix. That was an intentional departure from the previous eight years, going back to 1994, when our products were RealAudio, RealVideo and RealSystem -- because our intention is that the core platform that comes out of this will not just be a standing commercial object code type of product, but also be available in a broad way for the community to enhance it and build on top of it and innovate with it.
So that led to the second announcement, which is the formation of the Helix Community. We were joined by thirty major companies including Sun, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Palm and many others (those four were on stage with us). This community process will be similar to the Java community process. Source code is available to community members. Community members have to maintain compatibility, but community members can build commercial products based on that.
We also concurrently announced a public source license for elements of the Helix platform, starting with the client piece. We put it out in draft form and would like to get feedback on that. It is our intention to formally submit it to OSI for certification as an open source license. It has the property we associate with that kind of license: pretty strong copyleft, pretty strong viral propagation elements. Plus full flexibility of what people can do with the client piece itself. We think the dual licensing offers the best of both worlds, in terms of giving flexibility to the community and also providing a parallel community for maintaining compatibility strictly for the kinds of commercial applications we've been in.
The third thing we announced is the Helix Universal Server. It's the first server for media delivery that delivers all of the major formats, regardless of what protocols or codecs or formats they use. And a particular note is that, in a clean room way, we implemented support for Windows Media, which as many of you probably know, does not use the RTSP standard, but we were able to add that in, thanks to a great engineering team, in a way that's fully compatible with the Helix API set, and he Helix engine.
So that's the three things: A brand new platform, built on what we've been doing for eight years; a whole new approach to it, based on a community and open source combination approach, and then this universal product built on that platform.
The fourth thing, which we're announcing today, is collaboration with Ogg Vorbis to integrate their open source audio codec with both the Helix open community source platform and also with RealNetworks' commercial products, so it will be available for download for users of RealOne, to get it off as an automatic update to our base of 85 million users around the world. And the reason for that announcement is to have a broad support for open source across the entire system. The whole codec area is an incredibly complicated minefield. We've done, in our system, probably a dozen different codecs. We work with partners like Intel and Sony and VoiceAge and a number of other folks. So we actually wanted to seek out a codec that had full open source capabilities. And the people at Ogg Vorbis have done a great job creating such a codec.
So with that announcement you can see sort of a road map for how to use Helix in a very broad, practical and yet a complete and comprehensive way. So with that, Tim, whatever questions you have...
Tim O'Reilly: One obvious question. You've been doing streaming media for eight years and open source has been out there on the corporate radar for at least four or five years. Why are you deciding to do this now?
Rob Glaser: It's really a combination of things. One is that philosophically there has been a lot of support in our organization for open source for a long time. But it's kind of a bold move for a company that's principally a pure software company to move into open source. A lot of the companies that have embraced open source are hardware companies or services companies. We're one of the few that think of themselves as a company delivering value-added commercial software as a primary mission for what we do on both the systems and enterprise side and on the consumer side. So we wanted to make sure that we had thought through and learned and studied the right way to do this, even though we've believed for some time that opening up to the community is the right way to go.
Certainly the fact that we have an application on top of this -- the Helix Universal Server -- is no coincidence. Because we're able to sort of concurrently go to this community and say "Here is the platform. Innovate and do great things." And we can go to the commercial market and say "We've got a universal solution built on top of this." So this isn't just an academic or theoretical exercise or something just for the technology community. Here's something that you can really do with this that's unique and differentiated and quite different from whatever was possible before.
We studied a lot of the people that have gone along the community route, or the open source route, and tried to learn not only the things that were necessary to really get broadbased community support behind something, but also to create a commercial marketplace that works. It was really the combination of those that led to us doing (the project this way).
And then the final thing is, look, the industry is consolidating. This is an important point, maybe the most important point. It's clear that media delivery is huge. We're talking about convergence. Not just with PCs, but with mobile phones, digital set tops... and it is an unbelievably daunting amount of work. We've done hundreds of millions of dollars of R&D ourselves, but it is clear that the scale of what is going to happen in the future is hundreds of millions of dollars more of commercial activity to make this work. And there are only two possible sources of that: Collectively, us, and what we're doing with Helix and with the community; and Microsoft. And our view is that, and I'm quite sincere about this, if you want this to be based on published protocol standards like RTSP, and want it to be based on an extensible community and open source available core platform that's operating system and device independent, like we're doing with Helix, really embracing the community in the strongest possible way, struck us as the best possible chance to maximize the fact that this will be the framework of standards. So it's the belief that this is too big for any one company, and something that we need to open up to the community if we want it to be controlled by something that isn't the guys who control the operating system.
Tim O'Reilly: This brings up an important point. You used to work at Microsoft before you started Real. So you learned the lessons of embrace & extend. You might say in the case of the Windows Media player that you're embracing and extending Microsoft's software here-
Rob Glaser: -It's fair to say that -
Tim O'Reilly: - Embracing and extending out into the standards world. Kind of like "turnabout is fair play".
Rob Glaser: It is a little turnabout. That's right. We're saying "Microsoft makes codecs. It's their right to do that. They created these formats. There is a lot of content in these formats. We want to create one delivery system that will deliver them all." So we put a lot of work and effort into that. We also thought that if really wanted to open something up to the community, that the community didn't want to say "Well that's great, but how will that get to the world of all this Microsoft content?" So there is a connection between now being the time to bring this to the community when it has the pathway to being a complete universal solution, and the fact that we've done that work as part of something that we think will make this community effort even more valuable and useful.
Tim O'Reilly: One question that we saw raised on Slashdot was, whether you call it clean room or reverse engineering, isn't what you've done illegal under the DMCA?
Rob Glaser: We didn't mess with Microsoft's digital rights management layer at all. Without going into details that would make my general counsel want to knock me off the stage, basically we don't do anything that mucks or messes with the rights. So if there is a piece of content that a rights-holder has used a Microsoft DRM for, you need the Windows Media client on the receiving end to receive and decode that. So we have not done a separate implementation of Microsoft's digital rights management subsystem. We have had a lot of conversations about the pros and many cons of DRM systems, but the reality is that they are out there and the content is out there. We transmit it. We're just the truck or the trains that move it from the server to the player. And whatever the rules are about how the codec is handled are up to the Microsoft client software.
Tim O'Reilly: So have you taken some lessons from Apache? That's probably the open source project that has held up best against a concerted attack from Microsoft. Can you talk to that?
Rob Glaser: If you look at the successes of Linux and Apache, the fact that the community really continues to drive innovation at a pace that's equal to or exceeds any commercial implementation is a key part of their success. Because commercial customers love openness and believe in openness more and more. But more than openness they want reliability. They want portability, extensibility, functionality. So what we've tried to learn, and why we're here, is we believe that the community collectively, the Open Source community broadly as well as the Helix community we're nurturing and trying to build, can out-innovate any one company. I'm a great believer in Bill Joy's law, that the vast majority of the smart people in the world don't work for your company, no matter what company that is. That works empirically with Apache, it works empirically with Linux. And I believe it's going to work with Helix.
Tim O'Reilly: Have you had any kind of a response from Microsoft?
Rob Glaser: Well, I've been traveling. I've been busy... (Audience laughter.) ...We have not heard anything formal or official. We've seen some press quotes from them. I think it would be great if they embraced this community. Just like I think it would be great if they embraced Linux, it would be great if they embraced Apache, and it would be great if I could eat chocolate and not gain weight. And some of that may or may not happen.
Tim O'Reilly: Let's move over to the transformation of the media landscape. You were fairly prescient in seeing that media on the Internet was going to be one of The Big Things. We're still only a small way into that future. If you look at all that's happened not just with streaming media but also with Internet file sharing, Internet radio... a lot of interesting innovation that is getting the existing copyright holders running to Congress to get the big boot to stamp on these innovations. How do you see this changing the landscape, if at all?
Rob Glaser: I think certainly having the technology industry consolidating and supporting an open platform helps create a sort of unity that is important. Right now a lot of the really innovative things that are happening with media delivery on the Internet are sort of under sniper attack, right? You look at what happened with Internet radio, with the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel, or CARP, as it was unfortunately and accurately named. It really imposes on the independent webcasters a fee regardless of whether or not they make any money from those transmissions -- something that broadcast radio doesn't have to pay, satellite radio doesn't have to pay, but uniquely Internet radio does. Stuff like that happening is really bad. And the more unified our industry is, the greater chance we have of actually winning those fights.
The good news is, in spite of those barriers, more consumers are consuming more Internet media today than ever before. And the growth is outstanding. If you look in particular at the people who have broadband. They probably spend three times as much time listening to audio and watching video on the Internet than do narrowband users. So in spite of these speed bumps, there are a lot of great things happening. There is a lot of continued growth of consumer interest. I think those digital copyright battles, like Joe Kraus is in with DigitalConsumer.org, are important. I encourage everyone here to participate and get involved in that. Because right now in Congress the people getting the message out to the legislatures are the big trade associations, the recording industry, the broadcasters. And the voices of the technology community, and the voice of the consumer wanting to exercise his or her fair use rights, are not getting heard by Congress, or are certainly not getting the weighting that they should have. We have to send a message within the public policy process -- it could be a pain in the neck, it's all the way across the country, it sometimes seems irrelevant to our lives. But in this case the legislators are not necessarily looking out for the interests of our media and our consumers. We need to do something about it.
Tim O'Reilly: Let me ask you about your licensing strategy. On the one hand you have used a community source license that is somewhat akin to what Sun has done with Java...
Richard Stallman, from the audience: "It's not free software! Don't use it! Sit down!" (Richard was then quietly met by a guy from RealNetworks and the two moved their conversation outside the tent.)
So, on the one hand you have a community license that allows you to give some degree of control. You also have the potential for dual licensing in which you are able to make various proprietary licenses. But at the same time the RPSL, your other license, has a lot of GPL-like provisions. So you're really running the entire spectrum of licensing options in your overall strategy. And it seems to me that we're really seeing an evolution in the thinking of companies about how to use these various licenses for different business purposes. Can you sort of talk a little more about that?
Rob Glaser: My view, honestly -- and I respect the fact that there different people have different perspectives on these things -- is that there are three worlds that can jump into a public license, a source license, a community license. Or for those sets of things. And we want to support two of them, and we specifically don't want to support the third one. And those three are...
First is people who want to take source code, do innovative [he might have said "derivative" - DS]: works, will republish it themselves with the source basis, and that's why we have the public source license. We're starting that with the client piece of the system. They can use it for whatever purpose they want, integrate it with P2P applications, with collaboration applications, take it any direction they want.
Second is where you actually want to have some level of compatibility so applications can be written on top and have confidence that those applications will work and be reliable and compatible. So that's why we're creating the community source license, which is a Java-like approach. We've studied the fact that Java applications generally speaking do work and that compatibility effort is less flexible, less freeing than the public source license, but has that compatibility benefit, and we want to support that effort.
The third community is what I would call the vampire type approach, where they might have an operating system where they don't publish the source code and where the APIs aren't terribly transparent. And there are a ton of them. One of the things you don't want to do in a situation like this, is, as you open these up to the community, is open them up in a way that makes it easy for that group to embrace and extend and suck all the value out and just raise the price of the operating system to OEM manufacturers. Because then you haven't done anything to help move forward the openness. You've ended up just simply letting the vampires suck the value out and put it somewhere else.
So what we're trying to do with this dual approach is, if people want to go the public source route, that's great. It's viral. They have to publish the source code to their work. And so probably the people with vampires will find that unappealing. And if you want a community where you want to maintain compatibility and the vampires want to join and play by the rules, then they aren't vampires anymore, so that's great. So that's why we've taken this dual approach -- to support these two different worlds, but not to be foolhardy, let's say, about the third world.
Tim O'Reilly: Here's another aspect, aside from licensing. One of the things that's always struck me as interesting about open source projects, is how they tend to take off when there is a well-defined playground. You take Perl for example. There are not that many people involved in modifying the core engine. But CPAN is where all the action happens. People can write modules, share them, build on top of that basic platform. Can you talk a little bit about the modularity of what you've built and to what extent people can look at it for its break-up value, if you like, as well as its use as an existing complete system?
Rob Glaser: I'll talk about it conceptually. And of course 90 days from now we'll put the source code out through the procedure itself. In fact it has been our intention to have published APIs for our predecessor system, the Real system, and there are a couple hundred applications out there that already support it and have independent architectures in terms of the data types you can plug in, the different kinds of file formats that can be read, the different transport mechanisms that can be plugged in. So basically think of this as a media delivery system rather than edge transmitters and caching nodes that would sit in the network -- where you can plug in different protocols, file formats, codecs... And in terms of what people are going to do with that, look at all the different ways people use HTTP. People use it to quote other things, for file transfer, for anything. Because HTTP is out there and popular and well understood, and because it's available in source form through Apache and other things that can do whatever they want with it. So our sense will be that the protocol (garbled) RTSP that are built in and available as a core part of the Helix Community source code will be used in lots of different and unexpected ways.
Tim O'Reilly: We've said this before, but the unintended consequences are the best thing about open source. I think that's what you're hoping for here: that people are going to take this platform and surprise us all by finding new applications for it.
Rob Glaser: Absolutely.
Tim O'Reilly: Thanks very much for coming. I hope all you guys (in the audience) will take a look at Helix.org and find interesting things to do with it.
Background: Here are the slides from Infrastructure: Why geeks build it, Why Hollywood doesn't understand it, and How business can take advantage of it, referenced in this conversation.
Doc Searls: Let's talk about the background here. You've been at this business a long time, even for a non-Internet company.
Rob Glaser: There was no HTTP of streaming when we got involved. Nobody really tried, from the research community, to solve the problems. You had a few people, like what Carl Malamud was doing with Internet Talk Radio, which was just downloading GSM files. But in terms of actually looking at real time transmission, you had to ask when you could handle loss, what kind of error rates resulted in acceptable results, what transmission speeds, what kinds of codecs worked... We had do original whole cloth work because nobody had done it before.
All of the action on AV was either in mobile telephony cellular, which we benefited from in some derivative ways, but it was focused on different algorithm categories, voice only, not music... or was on high bit rate video, which was at sort of the MPEG-1 level of evolution. So we had to create some pretty fundamental infrastructure in our space, and that is one of the reasons why this segment of the industry has not had the same kind of underpinnings that FTP, or HTTP, or BIND, or pick your favorite thing from Internet infrastructure that grew out of the bottom-up approach that you describe (first slide) here.
Doc Searls: You rolled your own.
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Doc Searls: You said "we need some nature down here, so we're gonna make some."
Rob Glaser: Right, exactly. Which was fun because it meant there was this whole range of invention available to us. It also meant, in terms of what the logical structure of the industry would be, we had other guys coming after us from the top down, from the commercial level. And we didn't have the whole sort of culture/nature community thing going on underneath us. So it's made for an interesting dynamic. We've done very well -- I'm not ruing the outcome. But it's one of the reasons why today it's more of a transformation rather than an evolution. Because of where we came from.
Doc Searls: It's interesting. I've been hearing for awhile from guys inside your company, saying "Hey look, we've been doing all kinds of cool Linux stuff for a long time. Just want to let you know."
Rob Glaser: I think it's fair to say that because of our heritage we haven't engaged with you as deeply as we will in the future. Linux is the fastest growing environment for deployment of what was for Real System and will be for Helix. On Linux we serve more Windows media streams on an equivalent piece of hardware than Microsoft does, with Helix. We serve twice as many on NT, and four times as many on Linux.
Doc Searls: And the difference is what? Protocol and-
Other voice: We're using the same protocol. Our servers are delivering their protocol on their software. And we do 2X. Our server delivering their protocol on Linux does 4X. On the same hardware.
Doc Searls: The difference is in the server.
Other voice: Yes. We have a faster bit pump. And then we turbocharge that with a faster operating system.
Doc Searls: (back to this slide) The point here is that all these conflicts center on infrastructure. Certain commercial interests want to govern it. The geeks want it to govern itself. And government sometimes gets caught in the middle of it. This (next slide) is Larry Lessig's point that Hollywood wants extreme Net regulation, and (next slide) they are surrounded by geeks, and to some degree it's (next slide) a battle between metaphors. I'm kind of a linguist, among other things, and it's always been fascinating to me that we use the word "market", for example, in six or seven different ways. Investment people see markets as creatures -- bulls, bears, invisible hands. There are others: markets are categories, demographics, geographies. But markets originally were real places. This was one of our main points in Cluetrain.
That's what we're going back to with this commons concept. The Net is a place. That is what Larry Lessig is trying to do with Creative Commons. That is one way we conceive the Net. We use real estate metaphors. We have a "home" page. We have "addresses" and "locations" and "sites". But at the same time we do have pipes and plumbing and distribution. We do move bits through a system. Both metaphors are valid in their own ways. What Hollywood is saying is, "It's all plumbing, and we're going to DRM this thing from front to back because it's entirely about protecting stuff somebody owns." And on the other side we have Larry saying "No it's a place, and it was designed that way, you guys can't just rip it up because you want to put plumbing everywhere." It's a tough fight, but I think he's going to win-
Rob Glaser: Why?
Doc Searls: Because (next slide) the better bet in the long run is on nature, and on the culture, governance and infrastructure that goes under a commercial platform. Not what's imposed from above. Of course (next slide) Hollywood doesn't get it. The difference in perspective is (next slide) that geeks want infrastructure to support business, plus the rest of civilization. And a result of that is that we -- the geeks making infrastructure -- are also making (next slide) natural building materials. Which (next slide) puts business in the position of Paul Bunyan back in the early days of the country, when lumber was there for the taking. You can go out there and harvest as much as you want.
Linux is like that. A year ago at this same time some Microsoft guys I know asked me to name the top three applications for embedded Linux. I said, "Name the top three applications for lumber." Same thing. Linux grows on trees. In fact, Linux is trees. It grows in nature and it's free for the taking. So anybody can be Paul Bunyan and harvest as much as they want and use it to build all kinds of stuff.
Then in the long run what happens (next slide) is the software industry matures into something like the construction industry. We already use construction metaphors. We have designers, engineers, architects..,
Rob Glaser: It's mostly a series of projects.
Doc Searls: Exactly. It's also a two trillion dollar business, almost as big as drugs, and yet there is no Microsoft there.
Rob Glaser: So you're saying Microsoft does not stop being Microsoft, they just don't extend to other environments.
Doc Searls: Microsoft doesn't get any smaller. It's just that the rest of the world gets a lot bigger and less dependent on it. And it does not have the luxury of telling everybody what to do.
Other voice: It's not the central taxing authority.
Doc Searls: Yeah. Bechtel is a multi-billion dollar company. They build dams and nobody knows where they are; but they're huge and they matter and they're valuable. The construction industry is full of big companies that make big money. Just nobody dominating the whole thing.
And there are no secrets to the fundamental way people build things. Doesn't mean that people don't make prefab, or don't have IP happening there. It's just a mature industry. It's also ten thousand years old. Software is thirty years old.
Rob Glaser: Yeah.
Doc Searls: But meanwhile we're in a world of (next slide) opposing perspectives. The commercial guys often don't see the open and free nature of infrastructure, while the open source and free software guys often don't appreciate the creative nature of commercial software development. You're not going to get this (commercial) stuff unless somebody is motivated to make money at it.
So... (next slide) I don't know if you remember Craig Burton
Rob Glaser: Oh, sure.
Doc Searls: Well, Craig several years ago made the point that we have a tendency to collapse distinctions. The opposite of open is not proprietary. The opposite of closed is not public domain. These are separate distinctions. And if you plot open/closed and public domain/proprietary as a matrix, you have something very interesting. First (next slide), you can see that it's easy to collapse those distinctions on moral grounds: proprietary and closed are bad, while open and public domain are good.
But if you get past the politics (next slide) you've got a useful strategic framework because you can create ubiquity to your advantage. You can actually drive markets by causing ubiquity.
Rob Glaser: I get it.
Doc Searls: Which you guys seem to be doing right now.
Craig says (next slide) that infrastructure by its nature is ubiquitous stuff. So what happens (next slide) is that companies like IBM are starting to work this matrix like a chess board. They've dragged Java over here (toward the upper right corner). They did UDDI with Web services. They open sourced Eclipse, which they had put $40 million into. But they're still holding their patents. They're still working on stuff that's entirely closed over here (in the lower left corner). (next slide) Apple's doing the same thing. I think they are becoming more masterful at this stuff. It's also important to point out that they have plenty of stuff that's open but still proprietary, like their "i" apps: iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes...
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Doc Searls: Where they need something in the infrastructure space, they'll roll their own if they have to, as they did with FireWire. But in other cases, like with BSD and with USB and Apache, they'll cherry-pick what they need. So it's a matter of carefully adopting and driving ubiquitous standards.
It's also finally happening (next slide) with Web services. Craig says they are finally starting to emerge now as a result of infrastructure anarchy. And what's smart is when companies cause anarchy in a market, like you're doing right now. I was sitting there in the audience at lunch thinking I was looking at what we used to call a corporate sex change. It's huge. It's total. You're saying some of the same things I was hearing from (from Linux vendors) several years ago, but from a much different perspective, because you have commercial success that most other companies have never enjoyed. And you're involved with this community internally. I know this from the emails I get from people involved in your company saying they're doing really cool stuff.
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Doc Searls: You haven't been able to talk about this stuff for a long time, but now you've created a structure where you can.
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Doc Searls: And it's bound to cause anarchy. You can walk into the middle of that and take advantage of it. Make stuff happen with it. That's cool.
Rob Glaser: That's the intent.
Doc Searls: ... And this (next slide) is how these two conceptual frameworks fit together here. This is where it's really critical. You have commercial where it's proprietary and closed, and you have infrastructure where it's open and public domain. And the smart companies know how to work both sides of this. In your case there's been this tectonic shift (next slide), and bang: this (the company's infrastructural stuff) is all exposed.
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Doc Searls: We can understand: "Oh: you're selling this (commercial stuff) and you're working with everybody else on either giving this (infrastructure stuff) away or co-developing it. And suddenly it all starts to make sense.
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Other voice: And if they want to build some competitive stuff on the top, great. Go to town.
Rob Glaser: Well, it's certainly much better than having somebody else be the infrastructure, or not having ubiquitous infrastructure.
Who was the person who got IBM to understand this?
Doc Searls: (After discussion about various individuals...) It was the engineers. There was an adoption movement inside the company that was finally endorsed at the top once it was a fait accompli.
Rob Glaser: Because it's not the kind of thing that a guy like Gerstner would have understood.
Doc Searls: Their public stand was that they made a strategic decision. The truth is also that lots of engineers were solving lots of problems with Linux.
Rob Glaser: When I still meet with very senior guys, some seem to have their head in the past on this stuff.
Doc Searls: It's a big company. I am told there are fractions and factions at IBM around this. There are certainly a lot of people at IBM who are not happy to see AIX look like an end of life product. There's a story that the decision to put up to 50000 Linux servers on a 390 (now a Z series) mainframe was made by an engineer who figured out how to do it over lunch. We also heard that there were many people doing new stuff with Linux on old boxes. And at a hardware company like that, there are a lot of old boxes. So my best guess is that there was an "aha" by a number of middle and upper managers.
Rob Glaser: I have a dumb question. I always enjoy reading in a Red Hat press release that "Linux is a trademark of Linus Torvalds". Your magazine has that in its name. Did he so permanently characterize what the name Linux can be used for that his custody of it is... Well, what's it like day to day to have a business that's built on a metaphor and a brand name where an individual is a custodian of it?
Doc Searls: Interesting. Craig has made the point that Linux is proprietary to some degree, because Linus himself moves it in the proprietary direction every time you read "Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds." The brand is also subject to some dispute. There are huge disagreements between Richard Stallman and Linus on this.
Rob Glaser: The whole GNU/Linux thing.
Doc Searls: The bigger concern for us -- or at least for me -- is that Linux is now essentially lumber. When it achieves "world domination" -- which it is -- it risks becoming boring. It's pure infrastructure. What's more interesting from a business perspective is what's happening on top of it. And what gets combined with it. Like what you're doing. The operating system has become commoditized.
Rob Glaser: That's true.
Doc Searls: Let's get back to what you're up to. I've asked readers and colleagues for questions to give you, and at the top is the issue of codecs. A lot of people have said, "Well, they're not really open sourcing if they're not opening the codecs. Yet you've got a bit pump for all kinds of codecs. Under those circumstances, do codecs still matter?
Rob Glaser: Yeah. What we're doing is componentizing our business. We've had a consumer business, and it's gone super-well. And we've turned it into a premium subscription content business. Three quarters of a million subscribers later, we're off to a great start There's lots of daylight there.
What's happening here is that we're splitting out our systems business, at the level of the transmission system business, from the formats business. They're pretty different businesses, in a certain sense. (We all need) a common infrastructure that's absolutely, hard-core, codec-independent, format-independent, rights-management system and -rules independent... one universal infrastructure that supports everything, then it has to be adaptable to any current or future choices people will make.
While we want to make sure that Helix in all its forms is a great delivery system for those formats and codecs, we want the delivery system to be free to deliver, in a world class way, the best for everybody. That's why we named it Helix, not "Real System Universal." That's why we stepped back and said, "People associate us with our players and our formats. If you want to create a universal infrastructure, you have to dissociate from it. You need to do what Sun did with Java, where the community was willing to embrace it, not just because of the technical practices and the business practices, but because Sun didn't create a brand name where, if IBM or HP embraced it, they'd be running a Sun ad every time they marketed a Java-based product.
So if you start with that world view, you say "What would be the pros and the cons of actually doing something in the open source area with the codecs?" Then you run into this really complicated minefield. We have partners like Sony. We work with Intel. We work with VoiceAge on the voice codecs. There are lots of people out there that have lots of different IP in and around codecs, so that even if we open source some of the codecs, frankly, we'd have to be very, very careful -- the way Ogg Vorbis has been -- to design around the existing base of patents.
Doc Searls: You call it a minefield.
Rob Glaser: Yes. So we said, "let's make sure there are good, solid, open source codecs available. Let's make sure we make the binaries available on all of the important platforms. We've got a mechanism for that. And then we'll let the format business follow it's own gravitational path. It could end up being a nice business for us. It could end up being just an enabler, or a catalyst. But that's the philosophy we've taken.
Doc Searls: Using a delivery metaphor -- you say you're running a delivery business -- would a codec just be a way of packaging data?
Rob Glaser: Yup.
Doc Searls: And that would be a way of removing that moral issue.
Rob Glaser: Yup. Exactly.
Doc Searls: You're like UPS. People can use a cardboard box, or bubble wrap--
Rob Glaser: -- or shrink wrap or whatever. You can lock a safe and ship one of those. That's a heavyweight DRM. (chuckle) That's the philosophy. It turns out there has been a linkage between codecs and file formats and transmission systems. It's not only an artificial one, it's a non-scalable one. Because people want to deploy infrastructure invariant from file formats and codecs.
Doc Searls: What you're saying also, it seems to me, is that, as the business and market matures, the leverage one gets from owning a codec goes down.
Rob Glaser: If you have a better mousetrap, and your codec really is better, and you can get some intellectual property compensation for it, maybe there's some leverage there. But at the same time, the rights-holders want to minimize the number of gatekeepers that they are paying. So you need very transparent and low-cost intellectual property. That's one of the problems MPEG-4 is running into. They're trying to charge people per subscriber. Or per minute of streaming time, which is sort of a non-starter.
Doc Searls: It arrives encumbered.
Rob Glaser: It arrives more encumbered than the Real stuff, but even more than the Microsoft stuff. It may be published from the standpoint of a fully-formed specification describing formats, but it's more encumbered because of the licensing rules that the rights holders are trying to impose. It may be an example of something that's available in open source form but .... it still fails.
Doc Searls: What happens with Ogg Vorbis now? You guys just announced support for it here at this show.
Rob Glaser: I don't know yet if the result will be that we broad-based horizontal publishing outside the open source community's own publishing efforts. The media companies haven't demonstrated that they care about open source.
Doc Searls: But they care about free, in the sense that they don't pay something for it.
Rob Glaser: But because we don't charge for their codecs. But because of its availability, every embedded Linux device can have Ogg Vorbis. That's one significant possibility. But it'll take time because the mainstream media companies will continue with the processes they're using.
Doc Searls: You went with CollabNet to help you with this open source effort.
Rob Glaser: We had two or three good choices. What it came down to was that, in the time frame we were in, was a choice between a service and a shrink-wrapped product offering. And the VA guys' heart seemed to be in the latter, with SourceForge. And the CollabNet guys' hearts seemed to be in the service offering. Both great guys. But we took the approach that, because one thing the intangible service can do is make sure that the zeitgeist of the community works the way you want it to work, and facilitate that. It was the community dimension, and the service dimension. It's very hard in a shrink wrapped piece of software to embody community values. You can encourage them, but not embody them. As a service business, CollabNet can bring the human dimension of the community to life. We talked with people who have worked with them already, and they've done a terrific job.
Doc Searls: Coming out of the gate Helix looks a bit like Java to me in this respect: Java was a bag of stuff. Sun went out of its way to say it's not just a language, it's also this whole development environment, Java beans, the JVM and so on. With Helix you've got a similar situation. You've got the server, the community, some other things. I'm guessing that some granularity and resolution will come to that once some of the code appears, and lists of inherently interesting software that you guys have developed over the years start showing up in the server space.
Rob Glaser: Java also has this whole JCP process. And there are a couple hundred individual subprojects that people did to add value to core Java. Now look at the fundamental marketplace. You've got J2EE in the enterprise, the embedded Java and the personal edition for the smart phones. There may well be segmentation on the type of device or on what end of the delivery system, or what application people end up wanting to take this stuff to. So we'll see. It's an organic process where you pull people together and see how the community flows.
Doc Searls: Part of what I'm looking for here is saying in a simple way what Helix is. Some context on that: I thought Microsoft did a very good job of competing semantically with Sun on Java by saying "it's a language." Because Sun couldn't deny that much. They could say "It's a lot more than that." But Microsoft would come back and say "but it's still a language."
Rob Glaser: They may have done a good job semantically, but the reason you've got people like BEA and IBM and others building Java-based application servers is because the core community that Sun wanted to reach, they did reach. Especially in the enterprise market. In the PC client market, because of what happened once Microsoft licensed Java, and all the stuff with polluting it, Microsoft may have had to pay a $20 million settlement, but they also slowed the deployment of Java on the desktop . But on the back end side, the enterprise and application server side, Sun has did a very good job of building a meaningful community around that.
So, in terms of what we do, Helix is a media delivery platform. Which is to say it is the end to end system that anybody building out media delivery infrastructure can base their future on. So it's got the server piece, the encoding piece to encode the content, either for on-demand or for storage in a static way, or live where it gets transmitted directly through the server. It's got the server transmission system which in turn is both for direct server to client communication, or server to the edge of the network, for a gateway where the content will then get stored. Then it has that gateway piece for cases where the content is being originated not from an encoder but from another transmitting server where the content can get staged to the edge of the network. And then it has the transmission to the client in the client piece. So it truly is an end-to-end delivery system.
Doc Searls: And of all the things you just listed, what percentage is open source?
Rob Glaser: I'll answer in both a community open source sense and an OSI type sense. Think of it as a layer cake. The Helix platform has a client piece and a server/gateway piece, because it's architected to be one thing. You can configure it either way. There's the encoder piece. Then there are applications on top of it. There are multiple kinds of apps, which can be additional formats and protocols for the base server, or applications could be management features, content delivery... or higher level, like a security system, or a corporate training system, or a media archive system.
Doc Searls: And these are the things companies can make money on. Commercial stuff.
Rob Glaser: So there can be multiple layers of applications up here. We just announced the Helix Universal Server, which has the ability to play Windows Media, Real, QuickTime... transmit or serve to be played. It implements additional formats and protocols beyond the base set that's built into the Helix core, which available in source via community source, which is a Java-like source license. There's a volume-oriented price involved with that. We haven't decided what that is yet. You don't know what Java's price is, but you do know that it's available very broadly.
Then there will be an OSI -- hopefully, because we don't want to jump the gun -- public source license. Initially the client piece -- we may do more later -- will be available where the licensee has a choice. They can take the community license and have the results of their work be a proprietary thing that they control, as long as they contribute any changes to the core itself back to the community. That's like Java. Or they have the choice of using a public source license where as long as they publish, in a GPL-like way, the result of that work, they can do anything they want with this on a public source basis. So this is a true sort of inheritance propagation public source license.
So we mixed in the public license further beyond the client, but given that for most of the end hit system applications they are very happy to have the compatibility, number one. Number two, they like the ability to not have to publish back all their source improvements. That's why we have the community license. And that's why the public source piece we're originally offering on the client basis.
Doc Searls: Does Helix have the power to suddenly enlarge the whole media delivery market conversation to whole new dimensions, so that in a little while we'll be hearing about Helix conferences the same way as now we hear about JavaOne conferences?
Rob Glaser: Absolutely. We've had annual user conferences every year. We're very happy with them. We've had a couple hundred technical people at those. We're in the process of thinking through how to re-architect, with the community, that type of event, so there is the ability to have the JavaOne-type conference, where there is this very heavy-duty technical conversation going on. In the same way that you get all these stakeholders in by opening up the source code.
Doc Searls: Let's talk about Internet radio. You were very foundational in that business. It's not a very big business yet, but it's a significant one. There were a lot of people streaming with your servers, and also without your servers, who suddenly may not be able to do that any more.
Rob Glaser: They may or may not be able to do it, but they were given a barrier to doing it by the CARP royalty rates. Our philosophy is to fight on two fronts. The first is to go talk to Congress and see if they can repeal this bad piece of legislation. Then on the practical matter, while this legislation is still out there, can we create a lightweight subscription radio kind of service offering that will make it easy for any of these stations to kind of either stay on or come back on the air with sustainable economics for themselves. The first is an industry-wide effort, and the second might make a difference in terms of what the economics are for Internet radio. It's just unfortunate than Congress did something that will temporarily stop the growth of the industry. I don't think it will eliminate or permanently stop that growth.
Doc Searls: Bill Goldsmith of KPIG and Radio Paradise says he and others are in direct negotiations right now. He won't say with whom. Are you involved with that, or aware of it?
Rob Glaser: We can't speak out of school, but we do think the KPIG guys are good guys, and they've been there since the beginning, and they've always been very vocal, which is a good thing.
Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal. The opinions he expresses are his own.
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