Interview – Ahead software, developers of Nero Burning ROM

Ahead Software AG might not be known to everyone, but as soon as you name one of their products everyone will know about what company we are talking. Ahead is the company behind Nero Burning ROM, the software that is bundled with many drives. Ahead has currently a very strong OEM presence and is currently dominating the market in Europe. Also in the United States where Roxio had the largest market presence the company has become more and more populair and one could easily say that Ahead is currently dominating the CD-R software market. Because almost everyone knows about their products but knows only a little about the company behind it, we decided that it’s time to learn more about the company. We talked to Jim Corbett, Executive Director of Ahead Software.

The views of this company are important, because here is where most CD-R developements start, the company receives drives before they reach the consumer market to make sure it’s supported by the software and the company is in contact with many hardware developers. For now it seems that Nero Burning ROM and Nero Express will become the standard for CD and DVD recording, but the company seems also to bet on the MPEG-4 format that will be important for Digital Television and interactive multimedia.

  • When/Where was Ahead founded and how did you start?

    Ahead Software was actually founded in Karlsbad (Germany) by the current CEO, Richard Lesser. Although Richard had a background in engineering, he was at the time involved in computer peripheral distribution with another company. However the lure to get back to his engineering roots finally proved too much, and so Ahead Software was born in 1995.

  • What is the current state of Ahead ?

    Ahead Software’s HQ is situated in the town of Karlsbad Germany, and we also have a subsidiary in Glendale, USA. We are almost 100 people now including US, Europe, and satellite locations in Asia and London

  • What are your daily tasks?

    When you are only 3 or 4 people, your daily tasks seem to take on everything, and you are literally responsible for everything! However as you expand, at least you get some semblance of organisation, where your engineering is not responsible for the sales and marketing, and vice versa;-) So we now have a very dedicated team of people who are engaged in the serious work of coding, OEM and end customer support, marketing, administration, and sales. I still somehow end up being responsible for the coffee, so some things just never change 😉

  • How did you come up with the names, Ahead and Nero?

    Surprisingly, Nero was a lot easier to come up with than Ahead Software;-) If you remember Roman ancient history, many of the Emperors had a reputation as being somewhat brutal and unstable. Legend has it that in the case of the Emperor Nero himself, when Rome was on fire, he played the fiddle. We’ll never know whether that was really true or not, but if it was ever proved otherwise, we might have to re-think having a name of Nero Burning Rom;-)) So Nero began life as a brand name of Ahead Software, but most people now simply know us as just Nero ‘“ whether they are talking about the product or the company. This might change as we move into some new product areas in 2003/4. Maybe there is still time for Ahead Software to be recognised, not just Nero;-)

  • How was the competition when Nero entered the market ?

    At the time, there was strong competition on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, there had been a couple of specialised companies who were very early to acknowledge not only the challenge that CDR application development presented, but the business opportunity. However it was Europe, through the mantle of the likes of Incat, Cequadrat, Elektrosson, and Astarte, that probably brought the acceptance level of CD Recording software to a wider audience in those early days. Later when Adaptec (Roxio) began to make its push into the application software business with its acquisitions (Incat, Corel, Toast from Astarte, and then eventually CeQuadrat), the US influence became much more apparent. It was interesting observing this from the hardware side as I spent most of that time working for Yamaha who had introduced the World’s first CD Recorder at the beginning of the 1990’s.

    Because Ahead entered the CDR application market slightly behind the others, it was very tough in the beginning. There were many dark hours, and I think on more than one occasion, the possibilities of giving up were very real. But due to some sheer determination, call it stubbornness if you like, there was a resolve not to let it die. So I would say to any small company looking to succeed in a market dominated by others, never give up. If you are prepared to work hard, believe in your products and your people, and respect the needs of your customers, there is always the chance you can make it work. Just try not to do it at our expense;-))

  • What has made the success of Nero Burning ROM in your opinion?

    The users themselves. Over the years, Nero has attracted an incredibly loyal customer base. We’ve tried to repay that loyalty with regular product and feature updates, but notwithstanding there is a debt we owe to Nero users everywhere who have contributed to its broad acceptance. Of course it’s also recognised by everyone inside Ahead about the importance of key CD recording web sites, (no names mentioned ;-))) who work so hard with product reviews, and presenting honest and unbiased opinions to visitors.

  • What do you think about the current copyright laws in Europe (and the rest of the world)?

    Well I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a degree of concern amongst all software developers, whether big or small, regarding copyright laws, and their interpretation.

    I think recent events with DVD movie protection, and in particular, DeCSS, are good examples of a content industry that is very intent on taking action against individuals or companies, who, in their opinion, have broken the law. In the USA, the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copy Protection Act), has been specifically challenged regarding the aspect of copyright circumvention, and we now have in Europe, the proposed EUCD (European Union Copyright Directive), that maybe will be ratified by the EU in the not too distant future. But really this is nothing new, and we can go back to the days of the first video recorders to see examples of the suspicion associated with content copying and protection. Of course any kind of theft is wrong, but there is still a big question mark over fair use and personal backup construal. For us though, we’ll always try and avoid such controversy until a clearer definition comes.

  • Why did you introduce Nero Express, did the Nero Wizard not fullfill the needs?

    Well over the last couple of years we’ve seen a real maturity taking place in the CD Recording market. Gone are the days of very expensive devices aimed purely at the professional market. Indeed the first drive I was ever involved with was close to US30,000! It also wasn’t that long ago that CDR application software would cost you more than a whole computer itself. So with CDR and combo drives being common place now, even in pre-installed PC systems, a price spiral of drive hardware has also been mirrored by a falling price of bundled software.

    Add to that, a new kind of user maybe approaching recording software for the first time, there existed a challenge for us to make something that had appeal to a wider user audience, and at the same time, assist our OEM partners in addressing cost. However with Nero Express, it’s always been our priority not to be sparing on key features forcing the user to upgrade. So therefore Nero Express does contain many of the more advanced elements of Nero.

  • Will Nero Express eventually replace Nero Burning ROM and why (not)?

    In the case of bundled software that is included with drives, there is every possibility for the reasons mentioned above. But Nero will always be the flagship, and we’ll see this increasing take on a greater prominence during 2003 with DVD and Mpeg-4.

  • Is there anything exciting you can share with us about new features of Nero?

    Well there are a lot of things planned for the next major Nero upgrade and beyond. That’s one of the great things about working with creative developers and having demanding users. You can never stop! We recently took our first steps in incorporating our own in-house developed Mpeg-4-AAC (.mp4) audio codec into Nero, and we’re intent on expanding this even further as the first Mpeg-4 enabled DVD players arrive on the market. As well as DVD, we can also expect much in the way of CD Recording related new features, so I don’t think the Nero users will be too disappointed with what they will see during 2003. The Nero Toolkit, including CD-DVD Speed is also set to be further enhanced with new test procedures, and DVD writing support. The toolkit now is used by almost all the manufacturers as their de-facto test utility when developing new drives.

  • What are your views on the current optical storage market and how do you see the role/future of Ahead in it?

    Well it’s been a real roller coaster with CD Recordable, and I see this continuing for a little while yet. However the DVD wave is beginning, and with pricing of recordable drives falling in 2003, there is little doubt we’re in for exponential growth. From Ahead’s perspective, we will move forward in 2003 with a much greater resolve towards widening our DVD product portfolio, but at the same time not neglecting the CDR side.

  • What do you think about the DVD format war, and do you think one of the camps will win, or do you think e.g. dual format will become mainstream?

    I feel we’ll see many more dual format DVD drives coming out during 2003. But they might not be all about ‘“ or + as RAM still has visibility in many situations. On the face of it, multi-format drives would seem to be the answer for users, but compatibility issues might not all together disappear. Microsoft has made initiatives towards Mount Rainier, but whilst that initially would indicate their leaning towards +R/RW, it’s maybe not so clear now. As an application developer for DVD, we have to take a responsible view towards the user and support all the formats. Format wars will not go away though, and in a few years time, we might have to go through this again with HD-DVD;-) And to think, we used to complain about CDR compatibility!

  • Is Ahead planning to add Ogg Vorbis support and is there any date set?

    Well we probably owe a big apology to all those users who have been requesting support.

    To begin with, I think the Vorbis communities and developers alike, have done a fantastic job in widening the acceptance level of the Ogg formats. It’s also a great credit to their efforts generally that support has grown in many applications, and is now looking to spread to hardware devices in the future. But maybe a small explanation of the way Nero works regarding plug-ins might help with some understanding

    Regarding audio formats, Nero has a very flexible plug-in architecture, meaning it’s not so difficult for developers to instigate external audio codec support that would work directly within Nero itself. It was always our intention to make this implementation as adaptable as possible, without any restriction and totally format independent. Of course we’ve been very late in providing the documentation, meaning our own commitment to encouraging more widespread ‘external’ format support, has been much slower than we’d have liked ;-( Of course it probably didn’t help when users saw our own developed mp4/AAC codec appear in the last release, but this never meant to be a snub to the great work going on with Ogg.

    Anyway, the good news is pretty soon we expect to have the plug-in documentation completed, and this will be uploaded on our web site. Then shortly after, we would hope to see the first Ogg plug-in for Nero. Promise ;-))

  • Is there anything you would like to add ?

    Finally from us all at Ahead Software, we’d like to wish all CD Freaks visitors and contributors, a very happy and healthy 2003!

    We wish Ahead and all its employees the same and would like to thank mr. Corbett for his cooperation.