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Open Source Guerrillas Wage Codec Battle

It started with the simplest of code:

10 Print "Jack"
20 Goto 10

And with that, young Jack Moffitt's name scrolled endlessly on the screen of his first computer, an Apple IIe. That was 17 years ago, when the open source entrepreneur was a mere six years old, fiddling around in Basic.

Now 23, Moffitt is at the epicenter of the open source streaming media movement. Things have decidedly changed: He now programs on either his dual-Celeron Sony Vaio Picturebook or his PIII-600 at work, and his code is a little more complex, along the lines of:

if (len - pos >= mh.framesize) { self->_senttime += ((double)self->_frame_samples / (double)self->_frame_samplerate * 1000000); self->frames++; pos += mh.framesize;}

The Birth of Icecast
With short-cropped hair and slim black glasses, Jack Moffitt looks every bit the college hacker he was just a few short years ago...

Moffitt is in many ways the founding father of the open source streaming media movement.He was vice president of technology at San Francisco-based iCAST, which, until it was shut down in early December, provided Internet radio solutions using Icecast, the open source streaming server Moffitt created. While Scottish-born Scott Manley, technically devised the first bit of open source streaming code, Moffitt really made it fly with Icecast, introduced on January 18, 1999.

Hand in hand with Icecast is Ogg Vorbis, an open source audio codec that fellow iCAST employee, Chris Montgomery, began working on in 1998 and which made its beta debut this past summer.

Neither Icecast nor Vorbis are household words and may never achieve ubiquity, but Moffitt and his crew have big dreams when it comes to freeing Internet multimedia from the shackles of the Microsoft/Real/Apple dominance in the player and encoder space. Moffitt doesn't have grandiose visions of an open source player on every desktop, but he would like to see streaming media architecture -- the servers, encoders and codecs that form the technical guts of streaming media -- based on open standards so that everyone -- the consumers and creators of content alike -- is driving on the same side of the road.

"The world exists on open standards," Moffitt argues. "In America we all drive on the left side of the car and weights are standardized. But on the Internet with multimedia, there are eight [or so] systems, and they don't work with each other."

He doesn't want to send RealNetworks or Microsoft out of business, nor does he want to eradicate their products from the market - even if that were possible. And he certainly doesn't care if those companies make money. But it does gnaw at Moffitt when someone can't listen to a music file because the server doesn't support all formats. If a RealServer, for instance, were built using the Icecast protocol, it would support everything, he explains. The Icecast server currently supports MP3 files that can be played back by Real, Windows, Winamp, Sonique, Linux-based MP3 players, and most Mac players. "If you produced a radio station with Icecast, no matter what player [the listener has], it would work," he says.

To fuel his argument, Moffitt points to the foundations of the Internet, which are based on open source principles. The code of Web pages is visible to the general public with a pull-down menu in a browser, and surfers can use virtually any browser to view any Web page - they won't be prompted to download Netscape to visit a site, for instance. But they might need to use Windows Media Player to listen to a particular music file. Web pages are designed using the HTML protocol and Web addresses all rely on HTTP. Moffitt wants the streaming model to work in the same spirit, and to be as easy and seamless to use.

"We are doing something fundamentally different from Real and Microsoft. They are making closed source solutions and trying to force it on people. The goal of Icecast isn't to make money but to make Internet multimedia better," he says.


For Love or Money

For Moffitt and most open source creators and connoisseurs, the development of free software tools often stems from a pure love of the game and a desire to create truly "democratic software", free in cost and free from corporate hands and balance books.

Lynn Winebarger, a Boulder, Colo.-based programmer, who has announced plans to create a complete end-to-end open source streaming solution with servers, player, encoders and codecs, sums up the personal motivations like a true rebel leader. "I subscribe to the same viewpoint as many liberals -- that a corporate controlled media is a bad idea. It's like having a corporation own the airwaves outright," he said. "This is about civil liberties, as far as I'm concerned."



"The world exists on open standards," Moffitt argues. "In America we all drive on the left side of the car and weights are standardized. But on the Internet with multimedia, there are eight [or so] systems, and they don't work with each other."


But you can't eat your ideals, so Manley and Moffitt are quick to point out the business motivations and benefits to an open source solution. Open source allows for complete compatibility, says Moffitt. "Think of how expensive it is not to be compatible," he says. Webmasters, for instance, are often forced into either encoding audio files for Real, Windows and QuickTime formats, or picking just one format, thereby restricting listening opportunities for users who don't have the player for which the file is formatted.

Using open source technology does not necessarily produce cash for a company, but it can save costs, Moffitt explains. "You can either increase profits or decrease expenses," he says. For instance, there is no licensing fee for use of the Icecast server, while most commercial servers, by their nature, incur charges. In addition, online radio stations and other streamers can save money by avoiding the MP3 licensing fees due to MP3 development body Fraunhofer IIS-A, he says. (For more information, see www.mp3licensing.com.) And artists creating music can do it cheaper with an open source product since the tools are all free, he adds.

Moffitt acknowledges that most of the users of Vorbis and Icecast are tech-savvy early adopters, but he believes the presence of open standards will drive the streaming market beyond that initial core group. "We think that these open standards or open protocols are going to make the market really boom. It wasn't until HTML and HTTP and the open centers of the Internet that networking really boomed," he says.

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