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Paul Kafasis Tells the Story of Audio Hijack Pro

by Derrick Story
07/30/2003

Paul Kafasis is a one of the original founders of Rogue Amoeba, along with Alex Lagutin and Quentin Carnicelli. Even though Audio Hijack Pro is their claim to fame (placing second in the US category of round two of the Mac OS X Innovators Contest), they currently have an additional four products in the offing -- Audio Hijack (non-Pro), Detour, Sound Source, and LineIn.

These guys have a solid Mac background. Alex, who actually wrote the code for Audio Hijack Pro, started out coding in the Soviet army 15 years ago, then fine-tuned his chops by writing the plug-in architecture and plug-ins for MacAmp. As Mac OS X burst onto the scene, Paul, Alex, and Quentin made the transition to the new platform.

At first, their work was overshadowed by Apple's elegant iTunes, but when they decided to transform their plug-in ideas into stand-alone apps, their fortunes took a turn for the better.

Photo of Alex Lagutin.
Alex Lagutin began his coding career in the Soviet Army about 15 years ago.

I had a chance to meet with Paul in New York at Macworld and talk about Audio Hijack. I'm always fascinated with how great ideas come to life; I hope you find Paul's comments here helpful as you work toward bringing your innovations to the greater Mac market.

Paul and Derrick Talk About Rogue Amoeba

Derrick Story: When did the lightning bolt of inspiration first strike about your award-winning idea? Was it in the shower, on a walk, during conversation ...?

Paul Kafasis: The idea behind Audio Hijack and Audio Hijack Pro belongs to Alex Lagutin. He created it way back in the stone age, back on OS 9 (ancient, indeed). At the time, all of Rogue Amoeba's founders were working for Subband Software, on the popular MacAmp MP3/audio player. Alex was working on an AIFF Writer plug-in, which would enable users to convert any audio format MacAmp could play into AIFF. He realized we could do this on a per-application basis. Thus, the idea of Audio Hijack was born.

DS: Then what did Alex do? Work up a prototype, get some help, let it ferment? How much time passed between when he had the initial inspiration and the first working prototype?

PK: Alex went from this idea to a plug-in for MacAmp in a few days. The development on that aspect was very rapid, as he already knew how to get the audio out of other applications and had created the plug-in format for MacAmp. This was back in June of 2001.

Photograph of Alex today.
Alex today in his civilian clothes.

However, it was many months before this eventually became Rogue Amoeba's first product. An OS X prototype was first created in January of 2002, using an entirely different method of hijacking. It was then turned into a plug-in for MacAmp Lite X, our OS X MP3 player. We always knew it was a cool idea, but it was obscured by the fact that it was a supplementary plug-in for our MP3 players, which were being overshadowed by iTunes.

Finally, in the late Summer of 2002, Alex, Quentin Carnicelli and I left to form Rogue Amoeba Software. Our first product was to be Audio Hijack, a stand-alone application that did what the Audio Hijack plug-ins did -- take audio from any individual app and allow the user to save it to AIFF. This was released September 30, 2002. Audio Hijack Pro 1.0 was released March 3rd, 2003.

DS: Do you guys have a mentor? Or maybe someone who helped your team overcome the technical hurdles involved with bringing this idea to life?

PK: Audio Hijack and Audio Hijack Pro were created as team projects, by all three members of Rogue Amoeba. Alex and I have been working together for over half a decade at various companies, and Quentin joined up with us about three years ago. We've been working as a team on various projects for years, and I think it really helps our work. I don't think any of us have a specific mentor, but we get help from lots of sources -- Apple's developer mailing lists, programmers at Apple, and other Macintosh Developers. OS X is very young, so there are lots of issues, but chances are, someone has dealt with the same problem you're having and has documented how to deal with it.

DS: How many people did you tell about your idea during the development phase? Was this something you kept under your hat, or did the Mac community at large know you were working on this?

PK: Well, as I said, before Audio Hijack and then Audio Hijack Pro became applications, they were around as plug-ins for multiple MP3 players. The idea was out there for over a year on OS 9 and OS X before we released it as an application. We saw that there was going to be a market for this idea, but as plug-ins for other applications, it was just too convoluted. Once we began working on it as a full-fledged application, we were secretive about it. It's a fairly difficult thing to do, from a technical standpoint, and we weren't worried about competitors stealing our idea, but it's always better to keep things quiet and then explode onto the scene with a cool new app.

Photo of Paul running.
Paul is an avid runner when not working at the computer.

DS: Which was harder, developing the application to the point that it was ready for public consumption, or the "sales, marketing, distribution" side of the equation? Why?

PK: Oh jeez. The application was done for weeks, maybe even months before we finally released it. It was ridiculous. We had so much work to do beyond creating the application. The code behind Audio Hijack 1.0 wasn't easy by any means, but the application itself was done and ready to go for a long time before we got it out there.

For one, there was a lot of debate on the name -- we liked the name Audio Hijack, but feared it would not be well received. (We were wrong.) We also didn't have a company name. Slapdash though it might seem, a name like Rogue Amoeba doesn't come overnight -- we fought on various names for weeks. Then there was documentation, web site creation, finding a web host, setting up payment processing -- all sorts of hassles. Subsequent product releases have been much smoother; a lot of that work was setting up the company itself.

Personally, I've had a fair amount of experience marketing shareware over the years, so that aspect of it was covered -- our mailing list was already in place, the crafting of our press release was simple, so marketing wasn't too tough. But getting all of the background work done beyond the code was an immense undertaking for all of us.

DS: Online music and how it's handled is a pretty hot potato these days. How have you guys managed to push the envelope without having it break apart?

PK: You know, it's funny. Some of the most common things we see when Audio Hijack and Audio Hijack Pro are discussed are comments like "Download this before the RIAA shuts them down." So people at least think we're really toeing the line. The fact of the matter is, what we're doing is all legal in the analog realm.

We're time-shifting and space-shifting -- essentially, allowing users to listen to audio at any time they like, and in any location they like. Time-shifting is precisely what VCRs do, and a case on it went to the Supreme Court back in 1984. The practice was upheld, which is why we've all got VCRs in our homes now. Why shouldn't this apply to digital content?

Likewise, the RIAA fought the original Rio MP3 players for their ability to make copies of digital works, but the courts ruled this as legal. "Space- shifting," or making multiple digital copies of a file you legally own to listen to them in different places, thus became legal. We aid in this process by removing the restrictions of using specific file formats (AIFF and MP3 being very universal).

We certainly don't feel the ability to record any audio is inherently immoral, and almost all uses of it fall under basic fair-use rights. No matter what, it's nothing worse than what a simple digital->analog->digital conversion can do. If you can play it, you can record it and change it however you like, with legal analog tools. We simply allow this process to be easier, and entirely digital.

And to be clear, Audio Hijack and Audio Hijack Pro make for lousy pirating tools. If you're trying to steal songs, you'll need to spend a lot of time. First, find an Internet stream (probably low-quality). Then hijack it. Wait for your song to play, and start recording. When it's all over, stop recording. Trim the file to get rid of the excess on the ends. All in real time. Compared to loading up Limewire or Kazaa, this process is painfully slow, and entirely useless. If you're thinking about downloading AH or AH Pro to pirate songs off of Internet streams, you're wasting your time.

We've got a much more detailed discussion of some aspects of this here.

Another photo of Paul.
Does this look like one of the cofounders for a company named Rogue Amoeba, whose award-winning software is titled Audio Hijack? Paul with blue shirt and tie.

DS: Well said. So let's change gears for a minute. Looking forward, what will you do differently, and what will you do the same, on your next big project?

PK: Audio Hijack Pro, the application that actually was honored in this contest, was a very different release from Audio Hijack. In terms of developing the product, we worked a very similar fashion. Quentin did the front-end code, while Alex wrote the back end. Quentin and I worked on the user interface and feature set. I wrote documentation and web site copy. It was much smoother overall, as we had nailed down our various roles.

The thing we did most differently was listening to user input. On Audio Hijack 1.0, we created the application we thought users would want. We weren't terribly far off, but we were missing some big things people later requested. With Audio Hijack Pro, we listened to user emails and forum posts, and interacted with our users on a very personal level. By listening to them, we wound up with a very popular product.

We've all been doing software development for years now, so our process is decently refined, but having the ability to listen to input was a key difference on Audio Hijack Pro.

DS: What one piece of advice that you've learned during the process would you pass on to other Mac developers?

PK: Three words: Talk to others. Talk to other developers about code and setting up a shareware company. Talk to people you know who have bought shareware, and see what they liked or didn't like about various payment-processing services. And most of all, talk to your users about features and ideas. We've set up many different ways to communicate with our users -- email, our forum, and our company log. We've got a much more in-depth discussion of talking to users on our company log, Under The Microscope.

We firmly believe that an enormous advantage that small, independent software companies have over the big guys is our ability to talk directly to our customers. There are very few layers to our company. I answer the majority of our email, and I filter out valuable feature requests. When I see the same request more than once or twice, it goes on our list of things to consider. We hear individual users and discuss things in depth with them. This communication is invaluable.

Epilogue -- The third and final Mac OS X Innovators Contest launches on Wednesday, August 6. Stay tuned for the formal announcement, including rules, submission deadline, and plans for the special recognition event at the Mac OS X Conference in Santa Clara, CA.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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