RealNetworks has unveiled new software that can distribute streamed audio and video in a range of formats, including Microsoft's Windows Media format.

The company also announced a shared-source-code initiative – called The Helix Community – that's backed by many industry players, such as HP, Sony and Oracle.

The Helix Platform – which delivers the media – is based on the company's current client and server software. It allows content to be delivered over the Internet or a network from a server to computing devices.

It's the first platform to support a range of commonly used technologies and applications, such as MPEG-4 and Windows Media, analysts said.

Single server RealNetworks' first product based on the Helix Platform is called Helix Universal Server. It removes the need to set up multiple servers to deliver various media formats to end users. This allows content providers to consolidate their Internet media servers onto a single platform, said Rob Glaser, RealNetworks' president and CEO. Helix Universal Server supports over 55 media types, including QuickTime and Windows Media.

In a demonstration yesterday, RealNetworks set up a Helix Universal Server on an Intel server running the Linux operating system, and was able to deliver the same media stream to a Real One player installed on Windows PC, a QuickTime player running under Mac OS X, a Windows Media player installed on a Windows PC and an iPaq handheld computer.

The support for Windows Media formats could spark a legal fight between RealNetworks and Microsoft, as RealNetworks did not take out a licence from Microsoft for its Windows Media format, but recreated the technology by investigating Windows Media streams. Microsoft and RealNetworks have been battling for market share in the streaming-media market.

Glaser explained that his company hasn't actually reproduced the Windows Media technology for encoding and decoding files, rather it recreated the method for transmitting Windows Media files from a server to a client. All the work it did was legal and accomplished through negotiations with partner technology companies, Glaser said.

"Everything we did, we did in a clean-room environment," he said.

Universal Server is available today, and can be installed on hardware running 11 different operating systems. Pricing is based on rated capacity measured in MB per second, and ranges from $2,400 to $42,600. A free trial version is available for download from the Helix community Web site.