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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. When a Streaming Media editor arrived at Moffitt's downtown San Francisco office to interview him for this story, he greeted him in the elevator bank riding a new scooter.

Before the environs of downtown San Francisco became his stomping grounds, Moffitt plied his hacker trade on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas. Shortly before he left for college, he began learning UNIX, and in turn, Linux, Apache and Perl. Once at school, he was finally able to explore the depths of the Linux operating system. "Having a fast Ethernet connection [at SMU] allowed me to play around a lot more," he says.

In late 1996 he began working at the university's webmaster's office, where he gleaned much of his UNIX experience through Web programming. From there, he landed a job at a Dallas ISP, which hosted the Linux news site linuxpower.com (www.linuxpower.com), and became involved in Linux advocacy. That's where his open source interest flourished. As is often the case, necessity was the mother of invention for Moffitt and the folks at Linuxpower. "We wanted to do audio interviews on the Web site with folks from the Linux community," he explains.

Sure, RealPlayers and servers existed, but the use of those tools hardly fit with the site's focus on open source software. Moreover, it would have been cost prohibitive. "Getting a RealServer and production tools was too expensive," Moffitt recounts. "Besides, we didn't expect users to download Windows Media Player or RealPlayer for a Linux site."

Enter the Scotsman, Scott Manley, who devised MP3 Serv, the first incarnation of an open source streaming media server.

Manley jokingly refers to his rudimentary server as "one of those things you do when you've had a little too much to drink." In 1997, Manley had been listening to MP3s while pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy in Northern Ireland. He decided to use an MP3 encoder to encode music files from his computer's sound card to produce a streaming broadcast. "It took maybe half an hour. I modified an Apache Web server to have it broadcast," he recounts.

On November 5, 1997, Manley went on the air with what he says was the first live MP3 radio show. He produced his weekly show for about a year, playing music for friends and fellow hackers. He released the code for MP3 Serv, but admits the system was difficult to use. "It was incredibly hackish and banged together -- basically held together with duct tape," he says.

Moffitt agrees that the server was hard to use, but through reverse engineering, it served as the foundation for the first open source application Moffitt wrote: Icecast. The day after Icecast was released, the Linuxpower site served 500 downloads of the code. Unlike MP3 Serv, Icecast is a complete solution for streaming media, with a server and broadcast tools. "It works like a normal radio," says Moffitt.

A few months later, Green Witch, which later became part of CMGI, offered Moffitt a job to continue developing the open source technology. He did, and Green Witch used that technology for its Internet radio stations. A junior in college, Moffitt left school and moved to San Francisco to work.

While Manley may technically have been the pioneer of open source streaming, Moffitt has shepherded the movement and developed it to commercial viability since those early days in Dallas.

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