AOL Opens Up Audio, Video Technology

Despite helping to launch the Mozilla Foundation and releasing the code to its AOL Server software, America Online has never been synonymous with open source. But a number of new initiatives could change AOL's proprietary image, as the company strives to reach a broader audience on the open Web.

Faced with extending its core business strategy beyond its walled garden and rapidly falling subscriber numbers, AOL is looking outward -- rather than inward -- to bolster its arsenal of content and services. Specifically, AOL is enlisting the open source community to take over a number of projects.

First on the list are two popular visualization plug-ins found in Winamp, AOL's digital media player that is used by over 60 million people worldwide. Milkdrop and Winamp's Advanced Visualization Studio are now free for developers to tweak and utilize under a BSD open source license.

Milkdrop's predecessor, known as Geiss, was recently adopted by Yahoo for its Music Engine software. And Yahoo officials say they are now considering making the switch to Milkdrop. Developers of projectM, an OpenGL cross-platform music visualizer, have already begun to improve their software using Milkdrop's source code.

"By open sourcing these plug ins, we have empowered the passionate and highly skilled members of the Winamp community to play a direct role in the development of our projects," AOL spokesperson Deana Graffeo told BetaNews. "We're very excited to see what the community comes up with for Milkdrop and AVS."

A Focus on Community

AOL expects the projects to be managed from SourceForge, where AOL Server also finds its home. "Different members of the community are stepping up to the plate to spearhead the direction of these projects. We are lucky enough to have an incredibly vibrant developer community to respond," Graffeo said.

Going beyond just plug-ins, AOL is additionally open sourcing its Ultravox streaming protocol, which is used by Radio@AOL, and its Nullsoft Video (NSV) file format used by Video@AOL. Ultravox is the next-generation of Nullsoft's Shoutcast streaming platform that handles all types of content. Ultravox is codec, DRM and file format agnostic, according to AOL, which bills the technology as a "flexible streaming media platform."

"A good example would be 12 feeds from XYZ Corp. on one Ultravox pipe. The edge servers would then feed down 1 of the feeds to clients," Principal Software Engineer Stephen Loomis explained to BetaNews. "The possibilities are limitless at this point: Multi-angle / Multi-channel / Back-channel, live RSS updates, and overlay support to name a few."

AOL has established a Web site to disseminate the Ultravox and NSV specifications, along with sample content and an encoding plug-in.

Although Ultravox is heavily used internally, AOL representatives said that by opening its source, the company "can better encourage industry adoption and accelerate the development of the platform." Ultravox has been submitted at the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) to be considered as a standard transport protocol.

Use the Source

Unbeknownst to many, AOL is no stranger to open source. The code behind the company's Web server, which powers the AOL service, was first released in 1999. AOL has also long supported the open sourcing of Netscape, which went on to form the Mozilla Suite and eventually Firefox. In 2003, AOL pledged $2 million and personnel from its Netscape division to the newly christened Mozilla Foundation.

To help reinvigorate its struggling ICQ client, AOL has also turned to open source. Version 5 of the instant messaging software, which debuted in February, was built atop the open ICQ Xtraz platform. The Xtraz architecture was designed to encourage developers to build add-ons to ICQ.

AOL is planning to follow a similar path with the next-generation release of AOL Instant Messenger, known as "Triton," which is currently in beta testing. The Triton code base will also serve as a platform for other product initiatives, including e-mail clients, browsers and calendars.

New Development Paradigm

AOL is embracing the notion of open source on a corporate level, Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president and general manager of AIM and ICQ, told BetaNews. These recent efforts are the start of a new development philosophy at AOL that includes individuals outside of the company.

This philosophy is better suited for rapid development said Palihapitiya. All of the necessary evangelism, support and documentation coming from AOL will keep pace with the efforts.

AOL hopes the move to open source will draw a tremendous amount of interest in its projects. Eventually, Palihapitiya predicted that the Triton project could rival even Mozilla due to its scale and the massive AIM user base.

David Worthington contributed to this report.

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