Streaming Media To Be Less Proprietary

RealNetworks says initiative will make streaming easier and cheaper
A new initiative from RealNetworks Inc. will make deploying streaming media significantly easier, customers and analysts say. The streaming-media vendor has introduced Helix, an open-source digital-media delivery platform designed to let companies build custom applications that stream any media format on any major operating system to any computing device. RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser says Helix will reduce the hardware and staffing costs associated with creating and streaming multiple digital formats.

Supported by 29 partners, including Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Sun Microsystems, Helix consists of three components:

  • The Helix Universal Server, which can stream audio and video encoded in RealMedia, Microsoft's Windows Media, Apple Computer's QuickTime, MPEG-4, MPEG-2, and Ogg Vorbis. The server is available immediately, priced from $2,400 to $42,600.
  • A developer community able to spur streaming innovation.
  • Helix Producer, which converts audio and video into the RealMedia format. A basic version is available for free, while a souped-up version is priced at $199.

Helix will be a boon, particularly for wireless devices, which have lagged when it comes to digital-media support, says David Nagel, CEO of PalmSource Inc., which makes the Palm operating system. IT departments have resisted supporting multiple formats for the various devices. And Helix should be welcomed by PalmSource's community of 225,000 developers.

"It's the biggest change in the industry in the last year and a half," and one that's going to mean more choice for customers, says Richard Doherty, analyst with the Envisioneering Group, a digital-media consulting firm.

Rivals Microsoft and Apple will be playing catch-up for a while, Doherty says. A standardized digital-media delivery architecture would cut down on coding and hardware needs, at least in theory, making it more economical to stream training videos, conduct distance learning, and do remote security.

Microsoft, which in September will launch a version of its digital-media delivery platform, insists that Helix doesn't change its game plan. Michael Aldridge, lead product manager for Windows digital media, says the company licenses its source code for integrating Windows Media and doesn't plan to support other formats. Microsoft's media server software sells for $2,000 to $4,000.