Real opens source but keeps its crown jewels

Bid for ubiquity

ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

RealNetworks Inc will today release the source code for an audio-video playback client into the developer community, and announce bargain-basement pricing for companies wishing to license the code on a commercial basis,

writes Kevin Murphy.

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The company will release the code of its Helix DNA Client, the underlying engine for its own commercial RealOne Player, under two licenses. One license is similar to open source agreements such as the General Public License, the other allows developers to create closed-source software for a maximum royalty of $0.25 per unit shipped.

Source code for handling RTSP, RTP, RTCP and SDP streaming protocols will be available, as will source code for playing back MP3, H.263, NB-AMR and 3GPP (MPEG) codecs. More than 600 APIs will be made available for building playback clients and adding additional codecs, the company said.

The Helix DNA Client stops short of fully opening RealNetworks' crown jewels, however. Support for its proprietary RealAudio and RealVideo codecs will be available only in object code, rather than source code. And both licenses have been specially written to ensure RealNetworks' patent rights are protected.

Kevin Forman, general manager at RealNetworks, told ComputerWire the GPL-like RealNetworks Public Source License was created to avoid any "ambiguity" about what the company was opening. "We wanted to be really clear on what patent rights we were giving developers," he said.

The draft RPSL lists six RealNetworks patents that are covered by the agreement, all of which appear to cover systems for efficiently handling streaming media receipt and playback on a client device. The RPSL also says that some software derived from the code "may require additional patent licenses".

Other clauses of the RPSL call for the agreement to be terminated if the licensee makes a patent infringement claim against RealNetworks, even if it is a counter-claim in a suit filed by RealNetworks. The license is also revoked if the licensee makes a patent claim against another licensee over the code covered by the license.

The RPSL does, however, have a GPL-like foundation. Any software developed from the open source code must be delivered back into the open source community. This is the 'infectious' open source not beloved by some commercial software developers. For those wanting to release commercial software, the Community Source License is available.

Both licenses mandate that all clients produced with the Helix DNA code be compatible with each other. The RCSL allows free commercial distribution up to one million units, with a $0.10 royalty to RealNetworks for all units over that limit, without support for RealNetworks' codecs. The royalty is $0.25 per unit that supports these codecs, capped at $1m per year.

The client code release will be followed up by code releases for the Helix DNA Server and Helix DNA Encoder later this year. The strategy is to provide a basic platform for streaming media that can be used by all device manufacturers that is not restricted by the commercial concerns of streaming media software developers.

"Up to this point [manufacturers] have been limited to choosing between us and others like QuickTime or Windows Media, and to some extent limited by our engineering schedule," said Forman, adding that the company expects hundreds of varieties of access devices to use streaming media. "We couldn't enable all these devices ourselves."

RealNetworks has set up a developer community site at www.helixcommunity.org. Forman said: "Developers will get direct access to our engineers, almost as if they were sitting in this building... the latency of the communication between engineering departments we want to reduce to zero."

The ultimate aim of the Helix project is to grow RealNetworks' licensing revenue, which has stagnated over the last couple of years. The company reported last week that in the third quarter its subscriptions and services business was the growth driver, with software license revenue down to $15.5m versus $26.7m a year ago.

While the company will release some source for its server later this year, it will likely be stripped down, like the client. RealNetworks says its RealOne Player plays, and that its Universal Server streams, Windows Media Audio and Video, but the DNA versions of these products do not have this support, for example.

"Regardless of the file format, Helix Universal Server streams to these Helix DNA Clients... even if there's a plethora of clients our servers will stream to them," Forman said. The new licensing methodology, the company hopes, will ensure that virtually every access device shipped with streaming media support will be compatible with RealNetworks' streaming servers.

At launch, the company will announce Helix DNA Client has been licensed by consumer electronics manufacturers including Acer, Hitachi, NEC, Nokia, Philips, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments. All these companies are licensing the software with RealAudio and RealVideo codec support included.

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