RealNetworks Shows Up at the Open Source Party

by Sam Williams, author of Free as in Freedom

RealNetworks Announces Dual Relicensing Plan

The days of software companies publishing proprietary source code and receiving automatic accolades in response are already fading. So when RealNetworks, the Seattle-based streaming media leader (which is sending CEO Rob Glaser and top members of its engineering team to this week's O'Reilly Open Source Convention), announced this morning its plan to relicense certain components of its server-side technology under a Java-style community source license, along with a possible GPL-inspired license for its RealPlayer desktop client software, the two natural responses were "Why now?" and "What took you so long?"

After all, when archrival Microsoft announces a limited community source license before you do, you know you're moving cautiously.

Why Now?

Rob Lanphier, RealNetworks' program manager for interoperability, had plenty of answers for the "Why now?" question. Pointing to the complexity of the current streaming media marketplace--a marketplace that now stretches from high-end workstations to TiVo set-tops to Nokia cell phones--Lanphier acknowledged that the company's current software development style had fallen a full Moore's Law cycle behind the hardware side of the industry.

"We're basically redesigning our business model," Lanphier said. "We started looking at the combination of the platforms we'd need to port to, the type of processors we'd need to port to, and we realized the closed source model just wouldn't scale."

What Took So Long?

When it came to answering the "What took you so long?" question, however, Lanphier was a bit more reticent. An admitted open source advocate, Lanphier says he first began "beating the drum" about giving away a portion of the RealNetworks source-code base as early as 1997.

"This has been an evolutionary process," he said. "Certainly the Mozilla release [in 1998] got some people's attention, but I think it was the recent proliferation of devices and application-server environments that really made people think seriously about this."

Details of the RealNetworks announcement were still in flux at the time of this writing, but the basic shape offers hints of more evolution to come. The company will be unveiling two new licenses: the RealNetworks Community Source License and the RealNetworks Public Source License.

The first license, RCSL, will cover the basic non-codec portions of the Real System Server, codenamed "Helix," and it is similar in spirit to the Sun Community Source License, the license that covers Java development. Like Java developers, RCSL-licensees will have the ability to view and modify RealNetworks' server code for free and the right to sell commercial, derivative versions for an as-yet-to-be-determined royalty fee. The second license, the RealNetworks Public Source License, is a copyleft-style license and will cover only the RealPlayer client.

According to Lanphier, RealNetworks will be releasing its RealPlayer client under a dual RCSL/RPSL license, a model similar to Sun's release of the free software application suite, OpenOffice. Depending on how well the open source license is received, Lanphier said the company might be willing to consider a similar dual-license arrangement for additional tools and components in the future.

"Culturally, we are very new to open source," he said. "We want to put a down payment out there to let the community know we're serious."

Given past response to such "down payment" efforts--both the SCSL and Apple's Apple Public Software License drew heat from open source community members over compromise issues such as royalty fees and centralized corporate control--the dual-licensing venture is not without risk. With a number of open source media tools already swimming around the Internet, most notably the MP3 successor standard Ogg Vorbis, RealNetworks isn't the only choice available to open source developers.

For those community leaders already advising RealNetworks on how to handle the transition, however, the dual-licensing approach is an encouraging first move.

What's Next?

"Eventually what everybody wants are the RealPlayer codecs so we can build open source clients," said Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral & the Bazaar and cofounder of the Open Source Institute, the group responsible for certifying the RPSL in the coming weeks. "That hasn't happened yet, but what I'm hoping will happen is that RealNetworks will see enough benefits to open source those codecs."

Like Lanphier, Raymond saw complexity as the number one reason behind the RealNetworks decision. Instead of devices and platforms, however, Raymond said it was the problems associated with ce software itself that was driving the move.

"As the complexity of software projects scales up, it's becoming more and more difficult to QA your software any other way than peer review," said Raymond. "My guess is RealNetworks doesn't have a ton of programmers inside the company, so this is a good way to get around that problem."

As for managing the complexity of the community's development, RealNetworks will rely on CollabNet, the project management and consulting services firm that currently plays development host to the Sun Microsystems OpenOffice project. The project's central development is Details on the licensing plans can also be found here.

Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly & Associates, a corporate investor in CollabNet, describes the relicensing as an "über-ubiquity play." After years of battling Windows Media Player on the tilted playing fields of the PC marketplace, O'Reilly says, RealNetworks, unlike past Microsoft foes, has the opportunity to expand its offerings across an entire range of friendlier platforms. Rather than wait for dwindling market share to force its hand, RealNetworks is taking advantage of the limited leverage it still retains.

"They're really seeing the strategic value of open source," O'Reilly said. "I think this is yet another sign that we're getting beyond the initial enthusiasm surrounding open source and seeing open source as yet another part of the corporate chess game."

As chess moves go, O'Reilly said the RealPlayer relicensing move already looks to be a crafty one. After five years of avoiding unnecessary entanglements with both the proprietary and open source development communities, RealNetworks is in the rare position of having something new and exciting to offer both groups.

"I think there's a good chance they're doing this early enough that they can get developer support," O'Reilly said.

Sam Williams is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of O'Reilly's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. He has covered high-tech culture, specifically software-development culture, for a number of Web sites.

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