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Apple releases Podcasts app for iOS

  • Allows for quicker syncing and updating of your favourite shows
  • Was expected with iOS 6
  • Hints that some iOS features might be licensed to other platforms
Written by Adam Wajnberg

Podcasts, along with iTunes U, are one of those features that people either relish or ignore completely. One of the quirkier elements of Apple's universe, Podcasts have matured rapidly in the last few years. Apple has now released an app that stands apart from the iPod app on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, which allows for easier management of your shows and the (limited) ability to annoy your friends with recommendations. But more importantly, the release of this app signals some intriguing hints at the next step for iOS, which is finally starting to look vulnerable next to Android, and which has some some very real competition coming up from Microsoft later this year.

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                                       podcast app

Podcasts can best be described as an evolution of talk radio. Instead of streaming an episode on AM or FM airwaves, the episode is converted to a digital audio file and downloaded by the recipient. The phenomenon took a recognizable form in the 80's, where independent networks traded files to enthusiasts. These were mostly educational and research tools, but there was certainly a few produced for fun.

Throughout the 90's, internet chat shows remained a tool used by computer enthusiasts, and gained some popularity with the rise of illegal music downloading through programs like Napster (though to be fair, since these files were free anyway, Napster didn't really pirate anything - it just acted as a convenient aggregation point). Compaq developed a hard-disk drive MP3 player during this period, specifically designed to sort and list these files, which never got off the ground - but it would have beaten Rio and Apple to that market.

Fast forward to the 2000's - at this point these audio files would be distributed by RSS (Really Simply Syndication) feeds, but it wasn't until 2004 when iTunes started incorporating these feeds into a slightly easier format. Then some wag coined the phrase Podcast (iPod + Broadcast), and the format took off.

An Apple thing

Podcasts are not developed by Apple, but they are categorized in iTunes in the most straightforward and widely distributed method available. By 2007, politicians and traditional broadcasters were contributing to the podcast market to reach new markets in a more intimate and direct manner than radio and TV. Podcasts are not restricted by regular airwave regulation, so while there is more scope for explicit material, there is also a distinct lack of overt advertising. And of course, most podcasts are free. Monetized podcasts are now categorized in Audiobooks with iTunes, rather than Podcasts.


                       podcast screenshot

In the last two years, comedy podcasts have exploded. Comedians, stand-up comedians especially, rely on word-of-mouth advertising and intimate relationships with their audiences, which have made for a perfect match with podcasting. The most downloaded Podcast of all time, The Ricky Gervais Show, ran for three seasons and a handful of specials, and eventually lead to an animated show on HBO (which, for all intents and purposes, just overlays cute animation with the original audio from the podcast with very little editing). High rated shows like WTF With Marc Maron and Comedy Bang Bang have both lead to TV licensing deals in the US with the Independent Film Channel. In Australia, Hamish and Andy and Get This! on Triple M both found rabid fanbases via their podcasts.

Low barriers to entry

Podcasting is free and cheap to do. Many podcasts are done with professional music accompaniment and professional grade audio engineering, but really all that's needed is an iTunes account and a microphone. And a computer, that helps too. There are other 'podcatchers' out there like PodCruncher, but iTunes remains the most popular client for both users and producers of content.

The future

Podcasts are becoming far more malleable, with most including chapters that can be skipped to, similar to audiobooks. Enhanced podcasts, with video and pictures included, are still less popular than audio podcasts, which have the advantage of being smaller file sizes and being something you can listen to while running, driving, or piloting a 747 (maybe avoid the last two). But the release of a specific app might suggest a different future for Apple's involvement with this phenomenon.

Apple as a studio - Apple has gained most of their success in apps from the very thing that most people dislike about Apple - quality control. Rather than opening up their market to all and sundry like Android has, they've 'curated' their app store. This has annoyed many, especially since Apple has taken a no-adult content stance to varying degrees. But this has also stopped malware, viruses and many apps of questionable value to anyone from getting in. So even though the App store 'only' has about 100,000 apps more than Android, many feel that Apple's has a far higher number of high quality apps.

When it comes to content, Apple, has less opportunity to apply their aesthetic, and have had to rely on content providers. But Apple has a massive stockpile of cash, and content is king in this industry. It's not out of the question that Apple could start developing content in-house, the way Netflix is starting to do. Podcasts are a good example of where Apple has tested the waters of user generated content (with some of those 'users' being professional media outlets), and created a market of high quality content. Those who haven't directly monetized their offertings by charging for episodes have found other ways, either through gentle marketing with direct sponsors, or by selling associated merchandise (comedians are especially adept at this).

Were Apple's quality control and money applied to the traditional media market, you could see content wholly developed and owned by Apple and subsidiaries, delivered directly via Apple's own software to be played on Apple's own hardware. This might be a nightmare scenario for some, but with the consolidation of media under moguls like Rupert Murdoch (Fox) and Sumner Redstone (Viacom), there's scope for another player with a strong taste for high quality content. Apple could even buy out a proven developer of content like AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) or Showtime. Probably not HBO though; they're about the only thing making money for Time Warner.

'Podcasts' as licensed software - Another possibility is that Apple can see that the future will be fragmented for a while, with Android, Microsoft and themselves carving up the market. Microsoft has bitten the bullet on this and has written software for iOS and Android. Apple might be looking to leverage their Podcast management software to other platforms, as an enticing taste of Apple quality. I wouldn't bet money on it, but it's possible. In fact, with the iPod itself more sotware than hardware these days, you could see an 'iPod Media Player App" on other platforms. But y'know. Probably not.

Kill Spotify - It's doubtful that the Cupertino giant feels any threat from streaming audio services like Spotify, the tiny Anglo-Swedish firm that provides a radio-like experience via streaming audio, from what appears to be the goodness of their hearts (how they make money is still a mystery). But the new Podcast app does have a 'Top Stations" mode that allows you to flip through recommended podcasts with a skeumorphed radio 'dial'. It's not as good as Spotify, but why not compete with apps that are universally available, thereby providing fewer reasons for people to stay with your platform?

Or, it could just be that Apple wanted to make a dedicated podcast app :D



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