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20 years of orange cones: The history of VLC

How a student project became one of the world's most popular open-source apps, powering much of modern-day media, without ever creating a huge windfall for its developers.

20 years of orange cones: The history of VLC

VLC is 20 years old and has been downloaded more than 3.5 billion times.

Photo: Getty Images

When students at the École Centrale Paris lobbied for a campus network upgrade in the '90s, they weren't really thinking about the future of media. All they wanted was to play Duke Nukem 3D. But the public-private partnership that made the first-person shooter work on their campus network also laid the groundwork for the birth of the popular media player VLC.

Open sourced 20 years ago this month, VLC has since been downloaded more than 3.5 billion times, making it one of the most popular free software projects to date. Software developed for VLC is being used to power some of the world's largest streaming services. Despite all of this, VLC has largely remained a labor of love, with developers saying no to deals worth tens of millions of dollars.

The story of VLC is about geeks pursuing their passion projects, fighting back countless legal threats and hatching a baffling plan to send Bitcoins to the moon.

Duke Nukem, IPTV and a Swiss Army knife

The student staff running the campus network of the École Centrale Paris had a problem. The university's Token Ring network had become much too slow for students living on campus. For years, the technology had done its job, offering access to email and newsgroups. But by the mid-'90s, students wanted more. They wanted to download files, browse the web and most of all play Duke Nukem 3D, which was impossible on the ageing network architecture.

However, the university wasn't able to provide a network update. In desperate need for an outside sponsor, the students struck a deal with a big French broadcaster, which wanted to use the campus grounds as a testbed for an early version of IP-based TV delivery. The idea: Instead of equipping each dorm room with its own satellite dish and set-top box, students would find a way to stream TV signals over their local network.

"The goal of the project was to show that you could resend the satellite feed and decode [it] on normal machines, which would cost a lot less," said VideoLAN foundation President Jean-Baptiste Kempf. To achieve this, students developed a video server and a playback app, at the time called VideoLAN Client. The project got passed down as students graduated, and eventually, the team behind it decided to open-source it.

In those early days, much of the work was still focused on the server that redistributed streams across the campus network. No one really had any inkling how successful VLC could become as a cross-platform media player. "It was Linux and BeOS at the time," Kempf said. "No one cared about Windows and MacOS."

No one on campus, that is. Weeks after VLC got released as open source in 2001, a developer in the Netherlands ported it to MacOS, causing the first real usage spike. Apple's initial versions of OS X didn't come with a built-in DVD player app, and early adopters of the new system flocked to VLC as a replacement. At the same time, a U.K.-based developer ported VLC to Windows, where it became a surprise hit as well. "People were shocked," Kempf said. "Oh my God, how did that happen?"

One of the reasons for VLC's unexpected success lied in its Linux roots. Due to the operating system's lack of native codec infrastructure, VLC was packaged together with all of the codec dependencies necessary to play most video files and formats. That was different from Windows, where the system media player often refused to play videos downloaded from file-sharing networks, requiring users to jump through a bunch of hoops and download third-party codec packs from questionable sources. Using the same dependencies across all platforms, VLC just worked, and it quickly gained momentum as a kind of Swiss Army knife for media playback.

Download records, patent threats and barely any money

The project's IP television heritage also helped it become a key enabler of modern-day streaming media. In 2003, one of the VideoLAN team members began working on an encoder for the H.264 video codec to optimize VLC's media server component. The encoder, dubbed x264, was extremely efficient, making it possible to transmit video with a fraction of the bandwidth of a traditional MPEG2 stream. And because x264 was open source, it was quickly adopted by large parts of the emerging online video industry, with Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and others using it for their entire catalog. "It's probably the most used encoder in the world," Kempf said.

All the while, download numbers for VLC kept growing. "Every time there was a release, we saturated the uplink of the university," Kempf recalled. The decision to combine VLC's server and client components in one single app, simply called VLC, further helped its growth. Around 2009, VLC had been downloaded 100 million times.

VLC's success also put it on the radar of patent lawyers, who started to send the VideoLAN team a growing number of legal threats, looking to extract licensing fees. Over the years, the VLC team received hundreds such legal threats over alleged patent violations. Virtually all of them were without merit, according to Kempf. Many were based on U.S. software patents that weren't easily enforceable in Europe. Others were citing technology that VLC was using even before companies tried to patent it. "No one is checking whether these patents are valid," Kempf said. "It's a complete mafia; it's protection money."

But while VLC was a hit with users and making waves in the tech community, the team behind it struggled to maintain the app. Students would cycle out of the project after graduating, and entire platforms languished for months. In 2007, there were just three people working on the entire project. "It started to be more and more difficult to maintain and support," Kempf said. "It almost collapsed."

Kempf, who had enrolled in École Centrale Paris in 2003 but didn't join the VLC team in earnest until 2005, decided it was time for a break. He disentangled VLC from the university, and founded the VideoLAN organization as a new steward of the open-source project. He also began working on plans to commercially support the development of VLC, much like Mozilla had been able to with its software projects. The maker of the Firefox browser had founded a for-profit subsidiary, and made Google the default Firefox search engine in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in traffic referral fees.

There was only one problem: The model didn't really work for the nascent streaming media space. Instead, a number of companies approached VLC to bundle its app with browser extensions and other third-party software. These kinds of bundles were at the time popular with file-sharing apps and other freeware, which often relied on users not reading the fine print during the installation process to make a quick buck. Kempf estimated that such a deal could have brought in tens of millions. "Maybe we should have done it," he said. "But at the same time, I just want to be [proud] of my work, and tricking users? Yeah, that's not for me."

Instead, VLC got some modest support in the form of donations, and Kempf founded a company called Videolabs that is closely aligned with, but not part of, VLC. Videolabs employs a number of key VLC developers, and offers consulting and development services to companies like Samsung, Cisco, Microsoft and a number of carriers, which often rely on custom VLC implementations for their set-top boxes. This setup has helped to retain key developers, but it's also been a bit of a double-edged sword, with custom jobs taking up too much time to tackle other VLC-related projects. "We don't have enough funding to start new stuff," Kempf said.

Big UI changes, new business opportunities and a free trip to the moon

That's not to say that VLC is at a standstill. Twenty years after its first open-source release, the app is as popular as ever, clocking between 800,000 and 1 million downloads every day. In addition to the desktop versions, there are now also official VLC apps for iOS, Android, Apple TV, Android TV and Chrome OS, among others. And in the coming months, VideoLAN will release VLC 4.0, which will feature a revamped UI. "We modified the interface to be a bit more modern," Kempf said.

As the VLC team is tweaking the interface, it is also thinking about ways to integrate more content directly into the app, which could ultimately lead to new revenue opportunities as well. Kempf pointed to Plex and its ad-supported video services as one model to learn from. "That is something that could work for VLC," he said. VLC developers also continue to be involved in the development of next-generation video codecs like AV1 and AV2.

In addition to all of this, Videolan also has plans to celebrate its twentieth birthday this year, starting with a literal moonshot: The team wants to put a video time capsule aboard the first commercial lunar spaceflight later this year, and is currently asking VLC users to submit their own videos. "There are a lot of people in the VideoLAN community who actually love space," Kempf said. "We have SpaceX fans, die-hard fanboys."

The VideoLAN team plans to add some of the videos that have been a key part of VLC's journey, like the open source movie "Big Buck Bunny," as well as VLC's source code and dependencies. "And we are probably also going to send the private key of our Bitcoin wallet," Kempf said, half-joking. "The moon thing is absolutely, completely idiotic, but it's so much fun."

That, in a nutshell, may be the ethos behind VLC: Do things not because they promise to make a lot of money, or even always sense, but because they're fun. Chances are, the result is going to be useful to consumers, and maybe even the entire streaming media industry. "Most of the people who worked on VLC did that in their free time just to make other people happy," Kempf said. "I think that's quite rare."

For more on VideoLAN's plans for 2021, make sure to check out this week's edition of Protocol Next Up.

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