Open source advent calendar: the media player VLC

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This is an advent calendar for techies. In the fully commercialized digital world, almost everything belongs to a large Internet corporation. Their software is neither open nor free. As an alternative, there is this small island of the open source world: software whose code is publicly visible and can be independently checked for possible security gaps and backdoors. Software that can be freely used, distributed and improved. Often the drive for work is simply the joy of providing something useful to society.

Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing. Some projects are backed by an individual, others by a loosely organized community, a tightly managed foundation with full-time employees or a consortium. The work is done entirely on a voluntary basis, or it is financed through donations, cooperation with Internet companies, government funding or an open source business model. Regardless of whether it is a single application or a complex ecosystem, whether a PC program, app or operating system – the diversity of open source is overwhelming.

Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing.

VLC has gigantic usage numbers. The former student project has remained true to its voluntary “hippie style” and has always turned down immoral offers.

VLC is a media player for playing films, series and music, whether as a file, DVD, CD or Blu-Ray. Other practical functions are: You can convert files into other formats, record screencasts of your own screen and stream videos from YouTube and other sources via a network streaming feature. (Access to Youtube does not always work, however).

With around 200 extensions, additional functions can be added and other layouts selected. VLC is a PC program and is also available as an iOS and Android app (for Android also in the open source store F-Droid). The software is under a GNU GPL v2 license.

Jean-Baptiste Kempf, President of the VideoLAN organization, estimates that 300 to 400 million people use VLC on their PC every month, and 50 to 100 million use the apps. The Android app ranks in the Google Play Store in the 100,000,000+ installations category.

In February 2021, the media player celebrated its 20th open source anniversary. However, the story began again five years earlier, VLC started in 1995 as a student project at the French engineering school École Centrale Paris. In 1998 the code was completely revised. In 2001 the management of the engineering school allowed the software to be released. The project opened up to the external IT community and has not been part of the École Centrale Paris since 2009.

The organization took over the development VideoLAN. Their legal form is comparable to the German non-profit association, explains Jean-Baptiste Kempf to heise online. Kempf chairs a board of four. VideoLAN is currently also working on a second program for end users: the video editing software VideoLAN Movie Creator, which so far is only available as a source code version. To the Portfolio also include various video professional applications and software solutions for developers, such as the cross-platform multimedia framework called libVLC.

VideoLAN has no employees and only paid freelancers in exceptional cases, says Kempf. The work is done almost exclusively by the voluntary community: In code development, there is a hard core of eight to ten people who contribute a lot, and another 15 to 20 people who regularly contribute. He estimates the size of the entire VideoLAN community at 150. This includes people who contribute individual code elements, work on translations or design or im VLC-Forum moderate.

As with many open source projects, VideoLAN is also an indirect sponsor of Google: through its “Summer of Code” program, in which students paid by Google work for three months in the open source community. VideoLAN is financed, according to Kempf, exclusively through donations. In 2020, around 70,000 euros were raised, mostly from the USA, Germany and Austria. The money is used to pay for the server costs and the necessary hardware for the VideoLAN project, as well as for participation in events such as the FOSDEM free software conference. VideoLAN does not receive funding from government programs or civil society organizations.

VideoLAN President Jean-Baptiste Kempf was awarded the French Order of Merit for his commitment to VideoLAN 2018 excellent. He finances himself and some members of the community through a classic open source business model: his company, founded in 2012 VideoLABS sells support services for VLC and offers additional products, such as a VLC plug-in for video games.

Like Kempf in a video said the project had repeatedly received immoral offers. For example, for a deal to link the VLC download with the installation of a toolbar or the installation of Google Chrome. In doing so, “insane sums” were offered, which made you think: “How the hell can I say no to that?” But they always refused. That is why, according to Kempf, VLC is still operated today in the “hippie style” by a voluntary community.

The work on the series of articles is based in part on a “Neustart Kultur” grant from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, awarded by VG Wort.


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