What Apple’s New Podcasts App Means For Listeners—And for Apple

Without warning or fanfare, Apple introduced a new Podcasts app this week that gives users of iPhones, iPads, and iPods a much simpler way to find and listen to downloadable audio shows. Pundits had been expecting the move as part of the introduction this fall of iOS 6, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. But for whatever reason, Apple decided to jump the gun.

Podcasts were already available on Apple devices through the Music app as well as numerous third-party apps, so the shift may seem like a small one. But I think the change will turn out to be an important turning point for podcast listeners, podcast creators, and Apple itself, so it’s worth examining the new app in some detail.

What It Means for Listeners

Personally, I’m pretty thrilled about the new app. In fact, I’ve given it a place in my iPhone’s dock, displacing the older Music app. Here’s why. Back in 2010 I decided to take up running, and I’m currently training for the San Francisco Marathon, coming up on July 29. That means I started spending at least six to seven hours on the road every week. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those Zen athletes for whom the act of running is like meditation. If I didn’t have my iPhone strapped to my arm, sending my favorite NPR shows and other podcasts into my earbuds, I’d go out of my gourd with boredom. (You can see my usual podcast playlist in the table here.)

Wade’s Podcast Favorites
Fresh Air NPR
Lexicon Valley Slate
Marketplace American Public Media
On Being American Public Media
On The Media WNYC
Planet Money NPR
Radiolab WNYC
Studio 360 PRI, WNYC
TedTalks Audio TED
The Moth Podcast TheMoth.org
This American Life WBEZ
To the Best of Our Knowledge PRI, Wisconsin Public Radio

The big hitch in my running routine was that the Music app on the iPhone sucks at podcast management. For the life of me, I could never figure out how to subscribe to a podcast directly from this app. As far as I can tell, it isn’t possible. The desktop version of iTunes allows you to subscribe to podcasts, meaning that the latest episodes get downloaded automatically, but that didn’t help me because I almost never sync my iPhone with my laptop.

The upshot was that before every run, I’d have to spend 15 minutes or more tracking down the latest episodes of my favorite podcasts in the iTunes Store and downloading them manually. It was a total drag, made worse in the last few months by inexplicable slowdowns in the store’s responsiveness. Rendering a simple list of podcast episodes was taking minutes on end. (I posted to Apple’s help forums about the issue but never found a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the company was fiddling with its distribution system in preparation for the introduction of the new app.)

The new Podcasts app fixes most of that. From the app, you can now quickly search Apple’s catalog of podcasts and subscribe to the ones you like. Once you’re subscribed, there’s a settings page for each podcast that lets you specify whether new episodes should be downloaded to your device automatically, how many episodes should be saved, and so forth. In essence, the new app gives you the same level of control over podcasts on your iPhone that you previously had on your desktop via iTunes.

The app is also pretty fun to use. While it’s yet another example of Apple’s strange new obsession with skeuomorphism, it’s done in a clever way—as you listen to a podcast there’s a spinning reel-to-reel tape machine in the background, with the tape on the left reel gradually winding down as it’s taken up by the right reel. There’s also a cool little toggle for making a podcast play slower or faster.

Critics such as TJ Draper at BuzzingPixel point out that with the new Podcasts app, Apple hasn’t really reduced the confusion for people who manage podcasts across multiple devices. If you subscribe to a podcast from iTunes on the desktop, for example, it doesn’t mean that you’re automatically subscribed on your iPhone; you have to set up subscriptions on each device separately. Also, the seamless syncing of playback between devices that Apple promised in the feature list for Podcasts app doesn’t seem to be working yet. But these problems will only affect people who … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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