Ahead marked the day with two announcements related to now-shipping products: a new partnership with Simple Star to produce Nero PhotoShow Elite, a versatile image management tool; and Nero 6 Ultra Edition Reloaded, an updated version of the company's flagship "digital media solution." They've reloaded with ho-hum unlimited MP3 support, first-in-field DL recording, you-don't-say photo management capabilities via PhotoShow Express (a basic version of PhotoShow Elite), and oh-my Dolby 5.1 support, unprecedented in a $99 mass-market tool.
But what Ahead president Udo Eberlein really wanted to talk about was less tangible, not CD/DVD creation-specific, or confined to a retail SKU: Nero Digital, the company's advanced MPEG-4 solution. "We're a technology company," said Eberlein, "and we're going CE."
A statement like that deserves a little context. With deep roots in the CD recording market, Ahead has always manufactured PC-based recording products (a brief, ill-fated flirtation with the Mac market with NeroMax notwithstanding), and pro-worthy ones, at that. For the most part it only pursued the consumer market after CD (and later DVD) recording went consumer. But even that was all PC stuff.
Nero Digital, by contrast, is making a bee line for the living room, and as-yet-unreleased CE devices will sport the Nero Digital logo and embed the Nero MPEG-4 decoder (Sigma Designs announced Nero Digital support in its latest set-top reference design in June). You'll still do your MPEG-4 Nero Digital encoding on the PC—one of the key features of the Reloaded Nero Ultra is support for Nero Digital H.264/AVC encoding in Nero Recode. Working in conjunction with Ateme, Ahead has established a certification program and SDK for developing Nero Digital-compliant consumer appliances.
I've gotten sucked into the Nero vs. Roxio debate before, and MPEG-4 vs. WMV as well, but there's something much more interesting going on here. Consider Ahead's argument for why their strategy renders moot the familiar complaints about MPEG-4. First is quality; I don't think anybody would question H.264's razzle-dazzle at this juncture. Ahead has also emphasized high-apogee audio and 5.1 support in Nero Digital, which strengthens the quality argument further. Second is software player compatibility; by taking aim at static CE devices—where codec support ships with the product, and you know it by the logo on the faceplate—rather than the more variable PC platform, video developers can encode to Nero Digital with absolute confidence that their end users will be able to decode the content with its full video and audio quality intact. Thus Ahead argues that by going for technology-embedded chips and logo-emblazoned boxes, rather than gambling on the vagaries of the multi-purpose, multi-configuration PC, they're playing it safe.
But they're actually just making a gamble of a different kind: namely, that they'll be able to establish sufficient brand visibility that purchasers of consumer appliances will seek out the Nero Digital logo on the boxes they buy. Furthermore, as they pursue a market that's essentially new to them—for Ahead, "going CE" means going where they've never been—they're betting that these new types of end users they're after, roaming among the morass of silver and black CE boxes at Circuit City or Best Buy, actually notice things like logos that signify supplementary video codec support. Back in the days when Nero was a pro and prosumer product for the discerning CD-R user, Ahead branded the product with regular advertising in trade magazines like EMedia, and it got the job done. These avenues to pro- and bundle-market success are known quantities to optical disc technology companies like Nero. Similar strategies may work for courting partners like Sigma Designs, but that's less than half the battle here. Way less. Seeping into the CE customer's consciousness is a brand new, much more mystifying challenge; I'm anxious to see how they plan to do it.
The same goes for proponents of HD-DVD and Blu-ray, who are starting to make more and more noise these days. When I spoke with Andy Parsons of Pioneer (from the Blu-ray camp) at NAB, most of our conversation concerned developing a "publishing format" that will be identified with Blu-ray technology in the way that DVD-Video is, for the vast majority of consumers, synonymous with DVD.
Today, the HD-DVD camp seems closer to that goal; the fact that they're settling on AVCs and hedging on what their name means are two good signs that they're trying to push it out of the lab and into the public sphere. Technically, HD-DVD stands for high-density DVD, much as DVD was known in tech circles circa 1994 as HDCD. But technical doesn't sell boxes. Single-purpose, simple message sells boxes, and the selling point for high-density DVD, multi-purpose as it may be, is high-definition (HD) video that will keep pace with HDTV, the great looming inevitability of the broadcast and CE world.
What the HD in HD-DVD really means won't matter if its proponents can make it the go-to physical format for high-definition video delivery. A CE box only needs to tell one story if it's the right one, and it's a shaky premise to expect it to tell two, right or wrong. Which seems to me to be the fascinating challenge facing Ahead, and the Blu-ray and HD-DVD camps as well if they succeed in foisting both formats on the public. Regardless of whose box and whose logo ends up attached to my TV, rest assured: I'm tuning in.