RealNetworks Rewards Efforts of OSU Student Programmers

Two students’ outstanding work with a computer project to help educate children in developing countries has led to a corporate gift of $500,000 to the Open Source Lab at Oregon State University.

RealNetworks, Inc., was inspired to make a donation to OSU after becoming acquainted with sophomores Michael Burns and Justin Gallardo, volunteer software programmers for One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). This international venture aims to create a children’s laptop that costs $100 – making it affordable for governments to purchase one for every child. Countries including Brazil, Nigeria, Rwanda and Thailand have signed on, with 1 million units ordered as of February 2007.

RealNetworks, which donates five percent of its annual net income to charitable organizations, originally considered a smaller gift to OSU, according to Martin Schwarz, area vice president for format evangelism. Then representatives from RealNetworks visited the Open Source Lab (OSL) in early January.

“We decided to increase our gift to allow the OSL to expand the program to include development of content creation tools and media players,” Schwarz said. “We were very impressed with the eagerness of the OSL team to dive deeper into building digital media applications and the opportunity to support the efforts of the One Laptop Per Child organization.”

Every software application that runs on the children’s laptops must be custom adapted. In October, Burns and Gallardo offered to work on the modification of the word processor. Project leaders gave the two computer science majors the go-ahead but with a seemingly impossible condition: the work would need to be done by the following week.

Fueled by pizza and caffeine, Gallardo stayed up and coded for 36 hours – and finished the job. “I didn’t get to sleep that weekend, but it was for the greater good,” he said. “It is exciting to know that every document a child writes on these laptops will be done with software I have worked on.”

Conversations about another key software component had been taking place between OLPC and RealNetworks administrators. Creators of the RealPlayer® audio/video program, RealNetworks was interested in seeing its open source Helix™ multimedia player modified for use in the children’s laptop. Impressed by the speed and quality of Gallardo’s work, OLPC project managers recommended that RealNetworks contact the two OSU students.

A series of phone calls with Burns, Gallardo and others led to an in-person visit in which RealNetworks engineers traveled from Seattle headquarters to see the Open Source Lab for themselves. They found great possibilities for the lab’s development. “We recognized upfront that the team had significant potential to really expand their horizons and develop core expertise in building open source digital media applications,” Schwarz said. “We’re expecting great things out of the Open Source Lab for the OLPC project and beyond.”

The RealNetworks gift will significantly strengthen the lab and “provide the type of environment that students like Justin and Mike can thrive in,” said Shay Dakan, director of OSU Network Services. Part of the gift will fund a fulltime engineer who will mentor students working on the laptop applications.

Gallardo presently heads a team of four students working with an engineer on the Helix conversion for the children’s laptop. Burns, among other responsibilities, promotes the lab’s work part time. While the two 20-year-olds from Keizer are gaining invaluable technical and leadership experience, it’s the anticipated impact of the laptop project that means the most to them.

“There’s no more heartwarming feeling in the world,” Burns said, “than to know I helped kids pursue their dreams, even a little bit.”

Gallardo concurred. “I love programming computers, but I also like trying to make the world a better place,” he said. “This project makes me happy to get up in the morning.”