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Open source server leads Apple streaming scheme

Apple harnesses Linux fans' mindshare to beat Microsoft, RealNetworks

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Microsoft made a notable absence from Apple's various QuickTime 4.0 announcements yesterday. Interim CEO Steve Jobs can't have missed last week's launch of Windows Media Technologies (WMT) 4.0, so either he doesn't figure WMT is much of a threat, at least for now, or he thinks Bill Gates has already won and all Apple can hope to gain is his leavings. Given the spiffy new look to QuickTime's client applications, the latter seems unlikely -- Apple clearly sees the software going beyond adding a little extra functionality to its operating system. But in either case it leaves Apple focusing its competitive efforts on RealNetworks, which dominates streaming media with an 85 per cent marketshare. Apple has two key weapons to take to the fight with Real. First, there's image quality. Apple has been working on QuickTime for rather longer than Real has been developing its own software, and its core playback technology, with its support for numerous compression standards, video and animation formats, and performance tweaks, give QuickTime a real edge here. That's the advantage of leveraging a video technology into streaming, rather than the other way round. Real has focused its efforts on getting the streaming to work in low-bandwidth environments -- as bandwidth has increased, it's had more time to devote to improving the playback quality. Apple, on the other hand, has got the quality off pat and has been able to sit and wait for the bandwidth to catch up. To use that bandwith, Apple has based QuickTime 4.0's streaming facilities on two standard protocols, RTP (Real Time Protocol) and RTSP (Real Time Streaming Protocol). There are some important technological issues here that may act against Apple -- both protocols aren't designed to operate across firewalls and have problems with networks that share a single IP address through a shared modem -- and lack the fine-tuning you get with a proprietary technology like Real's G2. However, the standards vs proprietary argument only plays a small part here -- the standards aspect is only relevant in that it feeds in to Apple's other weapon: making its server technology open source. Apple isn't releasing QuickTime itself under an open source licence (or, rather, Apple's variation on that theme, the Apple Public Source Licence) -- it's simply releasing the streaming server. Apple has modified the PSL to address some of the concerns of the open source community, specifically it's original limitation on the ability of people to use the code outside R&D labs. That's been changed to permit people to download the code, compile it and run it to do real work. Now, for media companies, that really doesn't matter too much. As long as they have the tools to create content and do so as cheaply as possible, they're happy. What the open source side does do, however, is allow all those guys running Linux servers to adapt Apple's code for their own platforms and begin offering their own QuickTime content. If the plan works, that will widen QuickTime's mindshare in a way that a handful of deals with leading content providers never can, especially when those providers are also supporting rival formats. It's a canny move, not least because it positions Apple as the official opposition to not only the closed RealNetworks, but to Microsoft's attempt to dominate the Internet. QuickTime 4.0 Streaming Server right now runs under the BSD Unix-based MacOS X Server, and is avaible as a free upgrade to that OS. Given Apple's desire to protect the 'family jewels' -- ie. revenue -- the open source Darwin Streaming Server (Darwin is Apple's codename for all its open source offerings) may not contain all of the 'official' version's features, in particular its interface code, but it will be enough to allow it to be ported to other platforms. QuickTime 4.0, incorporated new versions of QuickTime Player, Picture Viewer and browser plug-ins, is available now in beta form, in both standard and Pro (pay a shareware-level fee of $30 and get access to QuickTime's editing features). It's not clear when the final release will ship, but Apple has jumped onto the 'easy automatic updates via the Net' bandwagon, so users will found out soon enough. ®

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