RealNetworks introduced its Helix streaming-media platform, a set of services and products intended to facilitate migration of streaming media to more devices while lowering streaming costs for content owners.
The primary features of Helix are the creation of a new "community," which allows product developers access to open source code, and a Helix Universal server that allows storage of 55 different types of streaming media on one server.
RealNetworks and Microsoft are racing for supremacy in streaming-media format, and Real's move may change the race by shifting the competition off the consumer's PC and into the backroom environment of servers.
"We've always felt that the battle over Internet delivery is not waged on the PC but on the server level, because that's where you get the people making the technology decisions in the media companies to pay attention about how to stay flexible and scale," says RealNetworks President and COO Larry Jacobson. "This answers those needs."
For major media companies looking to reach as many eyeballs as possible, encoding for more than one format has meant more servers and more staff. Real believes its Universal server allays those cost concerns.
"Content owners have a lot to gain with Helix," says Jacobson. "With the Universal platform, they don't need redundant systems to reach the media players out there."
RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser noted at the press conference unveiling the system that there is a proliferation of Internet-related devices and that the growing number of protocols, formats and devices has become unmanageable. "If the industry didn't create a strategy for coalescing around this stuff," he said, "then we would slow the growth of the industry and impede progress."
The community aspect of Helix is designed to allow companies and individual developers to access and license the platform's source code. That will allow them to build Helix-enabled encoders, servers and client products for use with a potentially wide variety of products. Cellular phones, cable set-top boxes, personal video recorders and other devices could all incorporate the Helix player, allowing users to play streaming content in any format they choose.
A number of device companies, large and small, have approached RealNetworks about integrating RealPlayer consumer products, according to Dan Sheeran, RealNetworks vice president, media systems marketing. In the past, the companies would negotiate and work out a relationship, which complicated the process.
"What we wanted instead was a model where companies could more easily add support for our technology to their device in a very streamlined way," he says. "For example, there's a very large community of Palm developers that already exist, so giving them the ability to put media players on Palm devices made sense for both sides."
The Helix Universal Server also promises to change the streaming landscape. It supports more than 55 media types, including MPEG-4. Glaser considers it a large leap over the previous RealSystem Server 8. A Key Labs study shows that it can deliver more than 11,000 concurrent streams, a 100% improvement over the Server 8.
The new server is not a transcoder, converting Windows Media files into Real or Quicktime files, Sheeran says. It still needs to store separate versions for separate formats but, he says, can produce cost savings. "The network operators can consolidate their infrastructure onto a single platform," he adds, "and can pass the capital and operating cost savings on to the content owners in the form of lower charges."
For content owners, savings come in the form of fewer servers and less staff. Instead of parallel server hardware for Windows, Real and Quicktime, one server will do the trick; savings are compounded if backups are involved.
The not-so-obvious cost saving, adds Sheeran, comes from needing only a single administrative staff, instead of a separate staff for each format. Cost of the server itself can go up to $40,000.
Adds Jacobson: "The whole dream for the media industry is to encode once and play everywhere. I think we're a lot closer to that."