Streaming Media Shake-Up
Real, Apple expand formats
In an effort to shake up the highly competitive streaming media marketplace, RealNetworks has launched Helix, a new software platform that allows media companies to simultaneously distribute a wide range of audio and video formats - including those of rival Microsoft - from the same server.
Until Helix, each of the major streaming media formats required its own proprietary client-server system. Now, a single server running Helix can distribute multiple types of data, including RealAudio and RealVideo from RealNetworks, Windows Media from Microsoft, QuickTime from Apple, Xiph.org Foundation's Ogg Vorbis, and multimedia formats such as MPEG-2 and MPEG-4.
RealNetworks said Helix addresses several key challenges now faced by the digital media industry. These include the cost and complexity of supporting multiple formats and architectures, the cost of developing applications in the absence of standardized application interfaces and the looming increase of these complexities as Internet-delivered media moves beyond the PC to mobile and home devices.
Unlike previous offerings from RealNetworks, Helix will not be a proprietary product. It will be made available under a community-source license that allows others to have access to its underlying computer code. With this licensing strategy, companies will still pay a licensing fee when they sell commercial products based on the technology. The community-source approach to software was pioneered by Sun Microsystems to distribute its Java programming language.
At its July launch, Helix gained the immediate support of about 30 major companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sony, Deutsche Telekom, Pinnacle Systems, NEC, Nokia, Hitachi, Cisco Systems, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, PalmSource, Texas Instruments, Sprint, TiVO, nCUBE and others. These partners will incorporate Helix software into their own hardware and software products.
BATTLE OF THE TITANS
Helix presents a new challenge to Microsoft, whose Windows Media technology has rapidly gained marketshare after being included as part of the Windows operating system software on new PCs. RealNetworks, still the industry leader, has been perceived as vulnerable to the Microsoft challenge in the streaming media marketplace. With the introduction of Helix, the focus of the streaming media competition now shifts from the computer desktop to the server.
In order to prove that Microsoft's streaming media technology will take no performance hit on Helix, RealNetworks said data based on a test it financed at an independent testing service, KeyLabs, indicate Helix can run Microsoft media faster than Microsoft's own server software. Under some conditions, RealNetworks said, Helix can outperform Windows Media Server by a speed factor of four.
The introduction of Helix, said Rob Glaser, founder and CEO of RealNetworks, is the most significant development for his company since the introduction of RealAudio seven years ago at NAB. "This is a watershed day for Internet media delivery," he said. "Since we introduced RealAudio, the industry has been asking for a comprehensive and open platform that it could standardize and build on."
Through the Helix Community (www.helixcommunity.org), developers and technology companies are promised access to the source code needed to build digital media products, such as live and on-demand streaming, local and remote playback of digital media and the ability to add new media formats and data types.
Helix, a technology that envisions the day when streaming media moves beyond the PC, was introduced amid a tightening race for supremacy on the PC desktop. Jupiter Research found that in the first quarter of 2002, RealNetworks' RealOne Player had a 29.1 percent share of media players, while Microsoft's Windows Media Player had a 28.2 percent share. Apple's QuickTime player was third, with 12.2 percent.
In an event separate from the Helix announcement, Apple Computer aimed to increase its streaming media share by introducing the first version of QuickTime that incorporates MPEG-4, the new multimedia standard for delivering audio and video streams over a wide range of bandwidths - from cellphone to broadband and beyond.
Just before its annual MacWorld tradeshow in New York City in July, Apple debuted the final version of QuickTime 6. It is the first product to bring MPEG-4 to the computer desktop. With it came a series of related applications - including Apple's Broadcaster and Server - that make up the industry's first end-to-end MPEG-4 broadcasting system.
Apple did a series of demonstrations at MacWorld to back its claim that MPEG-4 can deliver DVD-quality (MPEG-2) video at lower data rates and smaller file sizes. The company also included in QuickTime 6 the new Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec, which provides more efficient compression than MP3 with a quality rivaling that of uncompressed CD audio.
Though Apple implemented AAC, part of the MPEG-4 standard, in its popular iTunes music management software through a premium (paid) version of QuickTime 6, playback is currently limited to the computer. No playback capability for AAC files was incorporated in the company's new line of iPod portable music players.
The basic (free) QuickTime 6 player can stream all MPEG-4 media. A $30 upgrade to QuickTime Pro allows users to author MPEG-4 content. Apple's QuickTime Streaming Server 4 and Darwin Streaming Server 4 are available to stream MPEG-4 files as well.
Apple also introduced QuickTime Broadcaster, software that enables the streaming of live events in MPEG-4. The company emphasized that MPEG-4 will eventually play media on many different devices, from satellite television to wireless devices.
Apple noted that because hundreds of multimedia authoring applications are built upon the QuickTime architecture, QuickTime 6 will add MPEG-4 capabilities to popular media production tools such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, Discreet Cleaner and others. Many of these applications, however, require upgrades for the new codecs.
A key benefit of MPEG-4, Apple emphasized, is the ability to save time and production resources by encoding material once for playback everywhere. "No longer will content providers need to encode, host and store media in multiple formats," the company said. "Instead, a single format can reach a broad audience equipped with playback devices from not one, but a multitude of companies across a wide array of platforms. Finally, content creators have a format that will reach a global audience and will stand the test of time. While other formats and versions come and go, MPEG-4 will safeguard multimedia content for a secure future."
(For additional information on Helix, visit: www.helixcommunity.org. For Apple's implementation of MPEG-4 visit: www.apple.com/mpeg4.)
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.