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A "free" boost for multimedia


Although technologically and economically superior to their proprietary counterparts, GNU/Linux operating systems are very rarely used in audio and multimedia production. AGNULA is out to change this with its easy-to-use "free software" infrastructure.

Free, or "libre software", gives the users freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software, even sell copies. To qualify as free software it must also be available for commercial use, development, and distribution.

Nicola Bernardini, project manager of AGNULA, stresses that free software differs from open source software in that "it introduces the notion of users" rights and freedoms which the word "open-source" simply does not address." He and other consortium members have gone to great lengths to ensure the project does not get termed as an open source project. "We"re specially touchy about that, particularly because we feel confident that a large part of its success is derived from this firm step in adopting clear and specific licensing and communication policies."

The two-year IST project has made available two free software offerings project dedicated to audio and multimedia, one based on the Debian packaging system (DeMuDi) and one based on the Red Hat packaging system, both variants of GNU/Linux. By installing either of them, a user can easily build a professional or domestic workstation to carry out such tasks as audio/video editing, software synthesis, and real-time signal processing.

According to Bernardini, the need for such an audio and multimedia system dates back to a few years ago, "when a bunch of us musicians, GNU/Linux users and audio engineers were struggling everyday recompiling the massive amount of audio software already present. It was clear that we would not be able to continue like that, and we wanted to plan a better organisational framework. AGNULA was aimed essentially at GNU/Linux home musicians and audio enthusiasts, and academic and research communities."

However, he says the group discovered that the boundaries between professional and consumer applications that is so strongly marked in non-free applications to provided fictitious market segments are simply non-existing in free software. Within AGNULA distributions, users can access fully professional hard-disk recorders as well as CD players; state-of-the-art software synthesis languages as well as mod suites and MIDI file players. He says that the quality of these applications has raised a strong interest in the professional music production world that now sees AGNULA as a viable alternative to expensive user-locking non-free applications.

Although Bernardini stresses that there is no particular connection to the current Windows Media Player debate, "we do not believe in coincidences. Multimedia is one of the most promising development avenues for Information Technologies, and as such it has been selected by Microsoft to be a field where to attempt to adopt the usual monopolistic strategies. Therefore, the funding of AGNULA is coherent with the current EC attitude against the creation of IT monopolies."

At the February FOSDEM Event for open source developers in Brussels, AGNULA representatives covered key elements of the project, which was met with a "certain interest" by some of the people who were attending the talk. "As usually happens, meetings like FOSDEM are very good for talking with persons, but practical cooperation - especially when we talk about "ex novo" cooperation - is something that takes its time to start up, even though usually it does start up," says Bernardini.

He adds: "We are going to attend several conferences in the near future, including the Linux Audio Conference in Karlsruhe, Germany, at the beginning of May. We hope to foster wider interest in the project and manage to build stronger relationships with other projects which are working in the same application domain as we are - provided, of course, that every piece of software is licensed under a libre software licence."

Bernardini says that given AGNULA"s strong following from the "free" software community, it will continue as a voluntary project after the period of IST funding, which ended in March. Furthermore, several institutions have understood the importance of such a project and are willing to continue to support it in human and technology resources.

AGNULA has also spurred several other projects, such as the Libre Music Project (an online collection of Libre music, i.e. music which can be reproduced and copied freely) and an AGNULA book. Additionally, AGNULA/DeMuDi, the Debian-based distribution, will try to merge as much as possible with the Debian "free" operating system. "We are discussing with two Italian research institutions whether a cooperation with their projects [another live multimedia distribution and a streaming server architecture] is possible and desirable," concludes Bernardini, "we believe it is."

Tara Morris | IST Results

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