TMO Interviews Rogue Amoeba: It’s All About the Audio

At WWDC, TMO’s Dave Hamilton met with Paul Kafasis, the CEO of Rogue Amoeba, to talk about how his company ended up becoming audio gurus, the development of their audio products, why they’re not on the iPhone in a big way, how this year’s WWDC was still very useful for them and the what the future holds for the company.

TMO: I’m here with Paul Kafasis from Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC. So… you’ve been a Mac developer for how long?

Mr. Kafasis: Rogue Amoeba is almost eight years old now.

TMO: I want to talk a little bit about the apps that you do. You guys are … audio maniacs. [Pause.] In a good way!

Mr. Kafasis: Absolutely. The funny thing is, no one in our company is a real audiophile, but we’ve certainly found a niche in the audio space.

TMO: And you do some things that are seemingly impossible.

Mr. Kafasis: Right. [Things that] no one else is doing, like sending to AirPort Express with Airfoil. Or lossless editing with Fission.

Paul Kafasis

Paul Kafasis

TMO: And not to just the AirPort Express…. to anything.

Mr. Kafasis: To other computers. Absolutely.

TMO: Are you an audio guy?

Mr. Kafasis: I like music, but my systems at home are not, you know, phenomenal. But the idea is that the stuff is pretty consumer friendly.

TMO: So what headed you down the path of audio?

Mr. Kafasis: You know, we really just sort of fell into it. Previously, I’d been working at a couple of companies that did MP3 players, and iTunes kinda killed that space. Which is fine… it became a standard. You have to have a browser, you have to have an e-mail client … and you have to have an MP3/media player.

And so, we at Rogue Amoeba had developed a product called Audio Hijack — that was our very first product that let you record audio. And we really didn’t know what people would use it for. We sort of put it out there… and when we saw what people were doing with it, we scrambled to add features. Like timed recording. The first version didn’t have that. Everyone one wanted to use it like a VCR, and we didn’t even think of that during development.

After Audio Hijack, I guess, our next product was Nicecast which is audio broadcasting. And it was something where we used the same audio technology, the same audio grabbing technology, but instead of saving it to a file, you send it out to the Internet. And from there it started to be this thing where people would say, “Oh, I need to do X with audio,” and so the next big one was Airfoil, our Airport Express device extender. People said, “Hey, you guys can grab audio from any application, but I want to send it to the AirPort Express.” And so we looked at it and worked on it and eventually made an app that did that. And so, it’s something where people rapidly saw the various ways this technology could be used — this audio grabbing/hijacking technology as we refer to it. And we leveraged that to make three different apps: Audio Hijack [Pro] for recording, Nicecast for broadcasting and Airfoil for transmitting… and then accessories and companions.

Again it’s not something where we said “We are going to be an audio company, let’s make six audio apps.” But it’s developed very organically, and a great way to make new products was to leverage the existing technology. [Pauses.] I wish I could claim some genius for this. It’s very much something where I was lucky, and we had the tools to make these products that people wanted.

TMO: Right. So you’ve been developing products that get very much into the nitty-gritty of the Mac. And, over the years, you’ve gone through many OS iterations. Is that something that has been a problem for you?

Mr. Kafasis: Well, certainly every time there’s a major OS update, 10.4 to 10.5, 10.5 to 10.6, we have to be concerned about just what underlying changes [have been made] in the audio system — that the users never see — but we have to interact with. I wouldn’t say it’s ever been… Apple’s never been trying to kill anything. I believe that a couple of our apps are on an Apple internal white list so that they say: “…if our OS update breaks any of these 100 apps, then we need to figure out what’s up and maybe contact the developer. Or maybe figure out if we’re doing something wrong.”

TMO: That’s cool.

Mr. Kafasis: Yeah, that’s pretty nice to be aware that we’re on that list. Clearly it’s not something where we have to worry too much about breakage. But we are doing these low level things and doing things that aren’t necessarily “standard.” If you have a text editor, it’s unlikely to break in any serious way every time the OS updates. Earlier, at least, Audio Hijack would break pretty frequently when the OS updated. We’ve changed it to make it a lot more robust, less brittle, less fragile. It’s not something where it’s been too much of an issue. But when when we went to 10.6, we had to get everything working again, and our updates weren’t ready on day one. But within a couple of weeks, we were in good shape once we had a whole lot of user feedback on where things were actually breaking. So unlike that text editor example, we do have worry about dealing with the system.

TMO: Got it. So, without getting into too much nitty-gritty, are you just interacting with Core Audio? Or are you going deeper than that?

Mr. Kafasis: Core Audio is where we’re talking to it. But Core Audio changes from major OS version to the next, and that’s where we have to deal with things. Again it’s never been something like where it’s felt like, hey, we need to shut this down. It’s just, hey, this got updated, and now it’s different, and you have to figure out how to work with it. That’s the thing, we’re grabbing audio from all these applications, but there no system way to say, “Hey, I need the audio from Pandora. I need the audio from Skype.” We don’t really want there to be one, realistically, because it helps us. [Laughter.] We’ve got the secret sauce to do it, but in every [Mac] OS that changes a little bit.


Paul Kafasis-2

TMO: Got it. So… I was a little surprised to run into you here. You guys don’t have any iPhone apps. And you’ve actually spoken out against the iPhone…

Mr. Kafasis: About the iPhone review process.

TMO: That it’s the Achilles heel of the platform.

Mr. Kafasis: We do have Airfoil Speakers Touch. Just a free companion app to Airfoil. Certainly, it’s a relatively simple app. It works on conjunction with a Mac app. So it’s not something where we are here and looking at all these Game Center sessions. And iAd sessions. It’s not that we have a huge focus on the iPhone yet.

TMO: Is there any intention to change that?

Mr. Kafasis: So we actually have four people here, myself and three others, three of our programmers are here. The thing is, before they announced it [WWDC], we said okay, these are the four people we’re gonna send. And then they announced it, and we said, hmm…, do we really need to send everybody? There’s not going to be talk about 10.7 — they’re clearly focusing on the iPhone this year. But, one, there still plenty of Mac stuff. A lot of it is framed as iPhone stuff, iOS stuff, that also happens to go on Mac. But it’s not as if this stuff is exclusively for use on the iPhone. And, two, there’s also the sort of social aspect to it — like running into you. Having a conversation or meeting people I haven’t seen in awhile. Things like that. So it seems this is perhaps not quite as valuable as other years have been, but it’s still useful to be here, meet up with people, talk to people who we might want to have working for us in a year. After all, this is where all the developers are.

It’s something where, ideally, there’d be a lot more Mac stuff, the Design Awards would have had some Mac awards and there would have been a mention of the Mac in the keynote. It’s probably the first [WWDC] keynote, ever, that didn’t mention the Mac at all. So that’s a little worrisome.

TMO: WWDC keynotes have been a lot less about the developers than they used to be.

Mr. Kafasis: That’s right. There never would have been a Farmville demo five years ago when the press didn’t care very much about WWDC. And now… that’s the most news trucks I have ever seen lined up outside of Moscone. Even more than Macworld — because this is the biggest Apple has been, and this is the one event where you’re going to learn about their next huge product. There might be 5,000 people at the keynote, but there’s whatever millions of people who are going to read about the information coming from the keynote. And that is who the keynote has become pitched at.

TMO: Clearly. But there’s enough value in just the Mac stuff here so that it’s not totally disappointing?

Mr. Kafasis: Yeah. Ideally there would have been more. And last year there was more. And hopefully next year they might say, “Here’s 10.7. We’ve slowed down development on Mac OS X because it’s mature and because we’re focused on another platform, but obviously we still need this platform to develop for the iPhone.”

TMO: And hopefully just to stand on its own.

Mr. Kafasis: I just saw some numbers… this was Apple’s best quarter for Mac sales, ever.

TMO: Apple’s a hardware company. They focus on where the money is coming from.

Mr. Kafasis: Right, exactly. It’s not their focus right now, but they certainly know that it’s one platform that makes plenty of money and that they need to have around. The real concern to me is five years from now. Ten. Have Mac OS X and iOS merged? Which side have we gone to? Is it open the way Mac OS X is? Or is it closed the way the iOS is? In terms of getting your software out there. You’re on edge, and you don’t know. We’ll see what happens.

TMO: My guess is that, at that level, Apple may not even know.

Mr. Kafasis: Oh, absolutely.

TMO: And we’ve seen this before, where they’ve diverted engineering resources from one [project] to another. They clearly aren’t all about just bulking up on engineers. They’re about having the right people working on this stuff, and shifting their focus.

Paul Kafasis

Mr. Kafasis: Last weekend, at D8, All Things Digital, Steve said something like, “We do the best we can with the resources we have.” On the one hand, it make sense, but on the other hand, Apple’s the second biggest company in the U.S. One of the biggest in the world. You have the money to get the resources.

TMO: That’s right. But I don’t think Apple is interested in managing that way.

Mr. Kafasis: Exactly. It’s all about focusing on iOS right now. Focusing on 10.7 after that. So we’ll see.

TMO: Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about?

Mr. Kafasis: So we’re here. Everything is focused on the iPhone. That’s great. The platform’s growing. It’s huge. But we’ve got a bunch of updates on the Mac, and hopefully people will be interested.

We have Pulsar. It’s a simple XM and Sirius player. If you have a subscription, it’s terrible to use their Web player. It’s from 2002 and it’s just … lousy. And we had a lot of people wanting to use Sirius and XM with our other applications, and so we eventually made this player. And now we’ve been working on Pulsar 2 which is hopefully going to come out in the next couple weeks. That should be a really nice update for the people who use it.

Airfoil 4 is probably the next big thing. Sometime before the end of the year. That’ll be the next big update to Airfoil, which is now our most popular product.

You asked a question about the iPhone platform… as we talked about at the beginning, we’re very focused on audio, but there’s not a whole lot we can do on the iPhone. We’e had this conversation… we can’t grab audio from other applications. We can’t send audio from the iPhone out to anywhere. And you can’t get audio in to your application very easily. It’s a little bit easier now… you can do “document handoffs.”

But if we had an audio editor on the iPad… That’s the one idea I’ve thought of. You know, we have a Fission editor on the Mac… the iPad has this nice big screen. You swipe around, select, it’d be great. But how do you get any audio to that application? On the Mac, you just have an audio file and you just drag it onto the icon and it opens up.

On the iPad, you need to either record it yourself or download it yourself. In my mind, it’s something like where you do a live recording with the iPad, and you want to edit it, so you either need that all in one application, or the two applications need to talk to one another somehow. Which, like I said, is a little bit easier than it has been. It’s not at all like the Mac. There’s no file sharing, there’s no Desktop, there’s no universal folder for all the applications.

TMO: I was talking to somebody about this last night. We don’t even need a file system. We just need a file repository.

Mr. Kafasis: Right. One folder. We don’t need to even be able to see everything. If we know what we’re looking for there, that’ll work. It’s all very surprising because there are applications that need to be able to talk to one another. Like even the iWork apps you would think would want to talk to one another.

TMO: Yeah, there is some way of doing that, right, like TextExpander does, to a degree… but, yeah, it needs to be more.

Mr. Kafasis: So right now the iPhone is something where there all sorts of incredible things you can do — we’ve seen incredible games and incredible vertical applications where a market has been changed because, say, doctors had access to all this information right on their iPhone instead of carrying around books. But it’s still a new platform, um, still in its infancy and even after three years of development, they’re still constantly adding new features, so it’s not yet at a point where the stuff we would want to do can be done.

TMO: Cool. Thanks.

Mr. Kafasis: Yeah. Absolutely. Good to talk to you!