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the Real deal

Filed under: Hacking — Thomas @ 12:05


Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative, subjective, and biased. Make up your own mind when you read this. It's also fairly long, so if media doesn't interest you, move on.

So, tying in with GUADEC and our experiences over the last few months, and lots of people not really sure what various announcements all mean, here's my take on the thing.

Real has announced that part of their Helix framework and their HelixPlayer will be released under GPL as well. It is added to the dual-license already present. Regardless of anything else, that's a good thing.

Why did Real do this ? I can only conjecture based on my personal experiences. So, in a nutshell, a quick overview of them.

  • As most people know, Real was the first company to successfully develop and commercialize streaming technology. I have archived files from KCRW programs, all streamed in Real. I remember how happy I was when I found some tool that let me download the actual .rm files instead of the .ram files that pointed to the online stream, since I could never get a clean listen even on University 10mbit lines. Real were the first and they were very successful at it back then. This was around 1995. Phew, that's a long time ago.
  • At the university radio station I helped start, we tested the Real server and producer, on Linux. They were crude command line apps, but they worked. We also used icecast at the same time; we did a 16 kbit and 80 kbit Real stream, and an 192 kbit MPEG layer 2 stream with icecast. If I'd have to guess, I'd say this was around 1998. Real still enjoyed a large market share on the server and client side. The player wasn't as crap as it now is on Windows either. As students converted to Linux, we only wanted to provide streams that were playable on various platforms.
  • After that I moved on to a commercial radio station. Obviously commercial companies have different priorities. I was lucky to have a boss that had some notions about the fact that some people used other platforms than Windows. He primarily thought of Macintosh users, of course, but that's beside the point. So we had a few discussions with the national ISP who was going to do our streaming. As an ISP they offer the three primary streaming servers and formats: Windows Media, Real, and Quicktime. They also gave us rough marketshare numbers - 70% for Windows Media, 28% for Real, and 2% for QuickTime. This was in 2000. So we decided to offer both Windows Media and Real streams. Look at those figures - Windows had caught up. For video, the numbers were still in favour of Real - this was before the Windows Video codecs caught up in quality.
  • Today, in Belgium, only two broadcasting companies still stream in Real. One of them is the radio I used to work for. The other is a Kurdistan TV station. All others use Windows Media. There is no publically available hard data, but these findings are representative for the rest of Europe. I won't try and speculate on the US situation, but that's pretty much how it stands. More than 95% of streams are watched/listened to in Windows Media format.

So what happened ? How did Real drop from being the number one streaming company to being a very marginal company in its core business field ? Well, same old thing that happened to most other companies that happened to be number one in their core business field, on Windows machines. They got whacked by Microsoft. How did they get whacked ? They got whacked by being outservered and outcliented.

Here's what happened. Real charged money for their server, and quite a bit of it. That makes sense - they were rightly proud of their achievement. And their core business was streaming, so that's what they wanted to make money on. In those days, Real used to charge based on the number of simultaneous clients you wanted to support. Roughly speaking, 100 simultaneous clients would cost you $5000 in licensing costs. Not really cheap, but there was nothing to compare to, so they set the market price. Microsoft realized this, and chose a different pricing model for their server. Once you buy the Windows 2000 Advanced Server license, you have the media server for free. Microsoft can easily get away with this, since as we all know they can afford to lose lots of money for years just to kill off a competitor. Look at the X-box strategy.

On the client side, they made Windows Media Player and put it in the desktop. So you can play Windows Media streams out of the box. Windows Media, to the best of my knowledge, has never been able to play back Real streams. Why is up for speculation. Maybe it was a conscious choice by Microsoft. Certainly Real was unwilling to license the codecs to Microsoft, as it is impossible to license codecs from Real. Real hides behind the defense that "they don't own the codecs". (If you didn't know this - Real doesn't actually write their own codecs. They license stuff from Sony, Intel, and others, then make some small changes and increase the version number). What I've never understood was why didn't Real write DirectShow plugins ? In any case, on the client side, Microsoft provided an out-of-box working experience for their streaming format, while Real had to convince people to install their player. As we all realize now, the out-of-box experience is a powerful way of gaining market share, because you automatically own the 90% of people that Just Don't Care about the format.

So far for the quick overview. This is why Real has lost on both the server side an the client side. Now take a good look at Real today. Try their version 10 player on Windows. Click on the second biggest icon you see - the globe.It opens up a huge browser window. The playback area is a lot smaller in comparison. Every URL I try to open is first passed to this browser, then to the player if it's something that can be played - even if you hadn't activated the "media browser". Notice the "Music Store". I don't know how I got there, but after some clicks I ended up with a very small playback window, a web page to the right of that with lots of links to open content, and a bigger web page below that offering music for sale.

So here's what's happening - Real, after being defeated on their home turf by Microsoft and to a lesser extent, on Macintosh, by Apple, is taking the fight to a different playing field. Sadly, currently Apple rules this market, and Microsoft is about to join in, probably to whack Apple. The sad thing is, Microsoft has again enough money in the bank to offer a complete music store, platform, and everything nicely integrated, without ever having to sell one single song, for five to ten years. What is Real trying to do ? There is very little press about Real's music offering, and nobody really seems to care. Real is jumping ship to a different business where they've already lost before they entered. At least in the streaming field, they had the technology to compete.

So, let's go back to a side of the story that concerns us more.

Real has announced that the Helix Player and part of the framework will now also be GPL. This announcement ties in with the announcement that both Red hat and Novell will be shipping HelixPlayer and/or Real Player in their products. The technical guys seemed to have been in favour of opening Helix source for a long time. That makes sense as well - they have worked on the framework for quite some time, they think it is good, and they want it to be used as a framework. But as we all know, it's not the technical guys that decide what happens with the code. It's the suits. So if the suits don't see a good reason to GPL it, it won't get GPL'd. They don't understand
how free software and open source works.

But the playing field has changed, the suits realize that Real is going under, and that they need to come up with a new business plan. That plan has now shifted to selling music. To sell music, they need to provide something that's as close to an out-of-box experience as they can provide given that they don't write Windows. So the player has become a vehicle for selling music. Then they realized where they could gain more market share more quickly. Real has always know about and supported Linux more than any of the three companies mentioned up to know. "Hey, how about trying to sell our player to the Linux people and then we can sell them music and stuff ? They can't buy iTunes or whatever Microsoft will be offering." The suits would probably have preferred a less liberal license than the GPL, but none of the Linux companies bought that. It is a guess, but it's very likely that not being GPL was a showstopper to these companies, and the suits were forced to concede if they want to sell music.

Why do these companies want to ship the Helix Player ? Quite simply because their customers expect to be able to play at least some of the formats they know from Windows. Currently, the Helix Player is the only shippable player on Linux that can legally play some of these formats - their own, and MP3, if I read correctly. These companies picked the lowest hanging fruit so their customers aren't annoyed.

I believe the technical guys are commited to working with free software people, to some level. They have put in effort. Real has funded Xiph, and there's an engineer working actively on making sure the Xiph codecs are supported well. In the two weeks before GUADEC, one of them touched base with me a bunch of times to figure out bugs in the player triggered by our Theora stream, fixing issues like integer overflow in framerate conversion and so on. So all of that is a good thing.

However, make sure you realize what triggered GPL'ing of the framework. Make sure you realize that the suits aren't doing it to make us happy or help us out. The deal is very simple. The Real codecs are the carrot. The player and framework are the Trojan Horse. And inside of the horse are the suits who want to save the company from going bankrupt by selling you music.

Is there something wrong with that ? That depends on your position :) I just wanted to present my view on the situation, since people have asked. I think my explanation makes a lot of sense into explaining what has happened from the Real side.

Having the player as GPL is a good thing in itself. It allows us to evaluate parts of the framework on a technical level. The motives for GPL'ing it are unclear and suspect, and different for different forces inside the company. It's up to us as a community what to decide. So let's get evaluating.

After all the dry stuff

... a more humorous note.
We were at Rob's presentation on the Helix framework at GUADEC. A quarter of the people present were GStreamer people. Rob tried to play a file, but the player crashed, so he started again and showed us about 10 preference dialog tabs instead. The player obviously needs some UI love from a GNOME perspective. After that, he showed the Helixplayer playing our live Theora stream, which worked. Only, the picture was a bit squashed. Something was wrong. The guy talking looked a lot thinner than he was in real life. Julien and I realized at the same time that our Fluendo logo was not visible
We were puzzled afterwards if this was a bug in the player or something else. Certainly none of our versions of the HelixPlayer had this bug, and nobody else had reported it either. Was it divine intervention that triggered a bug and removed our logo from the stream ? I would find it hard to believe it was intentional; but none of the scenarios were this was an accident sound very plausible or flattering either. Can someone explain to me how this could have happened ? The best I can come up with is that he wrote a .SMIL file forcing a width and height on the stream.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

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