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Open Source and Streaming Media

A few years ago, only the most dedicated geeks had heard of Linux. Today, the renegade operating system is a potent force in the computing industry, and soon, similar open source efforts in the field of steaming media could mirror that success. The open source market for streaming media applications is gaining steam, with several parallel efforts underway.

The streaming media open source movement began in earnest three years ago when Scott Manley, an astronomer and self-described computer hacker in Northern Ireland, created a piece of MP3 encoding software that could encode from his sound card. That enabled him to broadcast in real time to create one of the earliest live MP3 streams. "I didn't really do anything special," Manley recalls. "MP3serv was the first MP3 streaming server to do live radio shows, at least which I'm aware of. It was just me sitting in my office, talking, and maybe playing a bit of music."

The solution was relatively primitive, but it caught the attention of other developers. Soon Jack Moffitt took up the open source cause and made a name for himself by developing the Icecast server. He worked with Manley, who ported his code to Icecast.

Icecast doesn't include a player, but the server is designed to work with most players, including Winamp, Real, and Windows Media players. Since the server is open source, it is not only free -- anyone can change it to accommodate their needs, as well as fix bugs and submit new idea for features. "Icecast is a community," says Moffitt, now vice president of technology at San Francisco-based iCAST, which provides Internet radio solutions using Icecast.

The Politics of Technology

Open source has become as much a political concept as a technological one, and the current work being done in the field of streaming media is no exception. Renegade developers view themselves as bearers of the free speech mantle, liberating technology from the grip of corporate hands. Moffitt says he designed Icecast to provide a free alternative for amateur broadcasters who couldn't afford to pay the licensing fees for a Real server, as well as to spur innovation. Users still have to pay for hardware and bandwidth, but they don't have to pay a licensing fee for the use of the server. "Without an open source solution you are at the mercy of what other people can tell you to do," Moffit says. "In a space as new as streaming media, it's not good to have one or two companies to tell you what to do."

In fact, Lynn Winebarger has taken the cause a step further and plans to create an entire end-to-end free streaming solution complete with servers, player, encoders and codecs. The Boulder, Colo.-based mathematician and programmer is the architect behind a software project called Free Expression. "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," Winebarger says. "This is about civil liberties as far as I'm concerned."

The Other Side

Not surprisingly, the companies active in the steaming media space take a slightly different view. Compared to its key media player rivals - RealNetworks and Microsoft -- Apple has been the most accepting of the open source concept. When Apple released its QuickTime 4 server in 1999 it made the source code available because the company supports standards and interoperability, according to Steve Bannerman, director of marketing for QuickTime TV in Cupertino, Calif.. "We believe innovation has been stifled in streaming media because solutions have all been proprietary. Having to buy a proprietary server from us is not a great way to promote interoperability," he explains.

Open sourcing the Apple server made business sense as well, since Apple is not well known for server products. Enabling the bigger-name server outfits like Novell, Sun, and Oracle to incorporate QuickTime streaming functionality into their servers helped spread the use of the QuickTime player, Bannerman said. "They can take that code and use it as the core for their product, then add new features. That's how they innovate," he says. According to Bannerman, the widespread availability of the server code has helped increase downloads of the player. Apple counts more than 50 million installs of the QuickTime 4 player alone, and 100 million installs of all QuickTime versions together.

Bannerman is quick to point out that the player itself, while based on standards, is not open nor is it feasible for a business to have a completely open source product line. "You have to balance the notion of open source with the fact that you have to eat. You have to be able to fund your efforts. You can't live on either extreme and survive. You have to strike a balance," he says.

RealNetworks, the industry leader in streaming media, has not open sourced its products, but doesn't see a need to either. Peter Zaballos, director of systems marketing, said Real publishes four to five times as many APIs [application programming interfaces] as any other media system. An API allows an application to talk to the media system, which is how software developers tie their products into RealPlayer. Since the company works with more than 200 third-party developers, there's no need for open source, Zaballos said.

While Icecast is still a nascent offering, it does take business away from companies like Real that license their servers for use. "If someone chooses to broadcast using Icecast rather than Real, is that creating a conflict in part of our business that sells servers? Yes. But in the grand scheme it grows the market, so it is healthy for the whole business," Zaballos says.

Andover, Mass.-based CMGI subscribes to a similar philosophy, though it actively supports open source. CMGI, a network of Internet companies, is the parent company of Moffitt's iCAST. CMGI is funding Moffitt's open source development project through iCAST in the hopes that an open source solution will make all of the iCAST products better, said Bill Golden, manager of public relations for iCAST.

iCAST plans on taking the project to the next level by developing an open source video solution, something currently not available. "The reason video doesn't work and [Icecast] can't support it is there aren't any good or free open source patents for video. All the formats are locked up," Moffitt says.

To solve that, he is designing his own video codec. In the meantime, he is developing an open source audio codec, know as vorbis, which should be available in July.

Those Nagging Patents

When he designed Icecast, Moffit was able to avoid any patent infringement issues because Icecast does not actually contain a codec or an encoder. "If you make an encoder you infringe on patents. We don't publish encoders. We build servers that support formats without having MP3 patented technology around it," he explains.

When Winebarger makes his code available for download in about a year, he is prepared to fight any possible patent infringement issues, though he does plan on devising original codecs. Still, patent infringement is a nebulous area and even if codecs are similar, someone can cry foul. "Patents shouldn't be enforceable against free software," Winebarger argues. "I plan on going to court and defending what I see as free speech."

The patent space has become so cluttered it's difficult to develop anything legally without consulting a patent lawyer, said Manley. "It's quite possible to come up with a new, open, video encoding system, but you might have to patent it first, and defend the patent in court to show that you have all the necessary [intellectual property] rights on it before it becomes truly unencumbered."

The current patent laws do stifle innovation to some extent, said Malcolm Maclachlan, media e-commerce analyst with research firm IDC in Mountain View, Calif. "U.S. software patents are given too easily and too broadly. I don't think [patents] should be illegal, but they should be shorter term and should be more of a public process," he says.

The open source movement is growing because a number of content and media providers are afraid of being taken hostage by the big technology companies, Maclachlan added. Robert Kaye, who leads the FreeAmp development team at Emusic.com in San Luis Obispo, Calif., subscribes to that notion. FreeAmp is comprised of four people who are dedicated to writing an open source MP3 player.

An open source solution is not absolutely necessary, according to Kaye, but it does provide tools to people who might not otherwise have access to them. "Buying a complete set of tools from Real to do some serious streaming is serious bucks. Open source tools will be free in the two typical OS senses: free as in beer and free as in speech," he says. "This question is not limited to streaming media; the same question can be asked of Linux. Why do you need an open source solution? Because a lot of dedicated people all over the world can work faster and better than Microsoft and Real ever can."

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