RealNetworks Reboots with Upgraded Helix Server

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RealNetworks is relaunching its Helix Server today—now called the Helix Universal Media Server—the latest and most public move in the company's effort to remind the online video industry that, despite perceptions to the contrary, it's no has-been or also-ran. Rather, it continues to break new ground at the cutting edge of streaming media server technology.

Founded by Rob Glaser as Progressive Networks in 1995, the company's RealAudio and RealVideo  were the first streaming media formats to gain widespread adoption, and its RealPlayer was one of the original online media players. Glaser stayed with the company until 2010, and was succeeded as CEO by Robert Kimball, who stepped down last week.

The intervening 15 years have seen Real lose media player market share to Microsoft and Adobe, though the company's codecs are still some of the best when it comes to quality, and its player still has widespread adoption outside the U.S., particularly in China. The company also focused heavily on mobile media and its Rhapsody music service.

In the last couple of years, the company has invested much of its resources into its Helix Media Server product, following a major restructuring led by Kimball in 2010.

"Bob restructured the company into a 'sell-build-deliver' orientation," says Martin Schwarz, Real's vice president for Helix products. "All sales is in one area, the build group (development) is in another, and delivery (carrier networks, video) are in another." Schwarz had been at Real from January 1999 until 2004; he returned to the company in 2006 and recently took over the Helix line.

A Real Re-Invention

"My mission was to re-engage with the industry," he says. "On the enterprise side, we haven't marketed ourselves a whole lot, but we've made a huge commitment to do that now. We're telling the world what we do versus what people think we do based on their perception of us from five or 10 years ago. We're not worried about the codec wars anymore; we're focused on listening to our customers."

Schwarz characterizes the philosophy as a "nicer, kinder RealNetworks, one that's much more in tune with solutions and our customers' needs. The 1990s were fun, exciting, and chaotic times, but RealNetworks has grown well beyond the entrepreneurial phase and matured."

Along the way, Schwarz says, RealNetworks is "opening up ourselves and our technology. We've got a massive effort to allow other companies to OEM our technology, so the video server can be part of a virtual learning system, or a CMS that wants to expand into video can build in our server to do that. It's not unlike what we've done with our player or codecs, which are in more than 700 mllion devices—Motorolas, Nokias, Samsungs, all kinds of chipsets. We can potentially do the same thing with our server and our RealProducer encoder technology."

Schwarz knows that one of the biggest obstacles for RealNetworks to overcome is the perception that the Helix solution is too costly. "We're working on a plan to re-position ourselves. Sure, we're world-class technology, but we're reasonable as well," he says. "Are we Wowza reasonable, or are we Microsoft or Adobe reasonable? In some areas, we offer a Wowza-like price. We need to get the word out that we're not a six-figure commitment like the old days, at lest not for the enterprise."

Helix: Fit to Serve

Because Real has worked to make its Helix product stable and compatible with multiple carriers in the mobile world, Schwarz says, the company is well-positioned to handle any concerns about stability and reliability in the enterprise arena. The company's relaunch of the Helix Media Delivery Platform includes major updates to the capabilities of the Helix Universal Media Server as well as an emphasis on world-class customer support.

New features in Helix Universal Media Server include the following:

  • Full 64-bit support, "for higher performance and scalability, providing an HD-quality viewing experience and eliminating file size limitations," says Schwarz
  • Simultaneous delivery to iOS devices, Android devices, BlackBerry, Flash Players, Symbian OS, and Silverlight clients
  • Multi-format, multi-protocol, standards-based H.264 and 3GPP delivery
  • Support for AES-128-bit encryption over HTTP or HTTPS and Flash RTMP, RTMPT, and RTMPS
  • Bookmarking capability to let a user stop a stream and return to it where they left off
  • Improved bandwidth management

RealNetworks isn't pulling any punches in the way it's positioning the new Helix. "Helix clearly is the easiest media server to get up and running when compared to our competitor's products," Schwarz claims. "And now with the new 64-bit version of the Helix Universal Media Server, we have the only truly universal, fully supported media server on the market today capable of delivering high-performance, scalable HD-quality video experiences to users."

On the customer support size, Schwarz emphasizes Real's size and history. "We're a 1,400-person organization, and we helped invent and interate streaming media," he says. "We know this space as well as anyone." Real offers worldwide support in-house, he says, not through a third party or call center.

RealNetworks will, however, be partnering with third parties whose strengths play to Real's weaknesses. "We're not a CMS company, we're not a set-top box company, so how do we solve that? By working with the Kalturas or Opentechs of the world," he says. "The worst-case scenario is 'works with Helix.' The best case is 'Helix inside'."

Optimizing the Future

Schwarz says another key stop on Real's roadmap is video network optimization. "We know a lot, all the way down to the protocol and codec level," he says. "We're working on some innovations, both on our own and with partners, to allow companies to manage over-the-top (OTT) video as well as their own video, implementing it in a more optimized manner in their network, both at the enterprise and carrier level. Most people are looking at the carrier level, but we think the enterprise is an area of innovation and features we can provide either through partherships or ourselves can provide a more turnkey, more efficient solution.

"From client to protocol to ingest, we've got it in our DNA," he adds. "We're screaming from the hilltops, 'It doesn't have to be our player!'"

RealNetworks has created a video called "Hello, My Name is Helix," which sums up the issues in this article quite nicely.

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