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

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spend a lot of time listening to podcasts from their computers, which I don’t. And in general, I’m a fan of all changes that further decouple Apple’s mobile devices from the desktop, for reasons I’ll come back to in a moment.

The bottom line: if you listen to a lot of podcasts on your Apple mobile devices, you need to get the new Podcasts app and stop using Music to access your shows. Of course, there are still lots of great third-party apps for listening to podcasts, including Stitcher, Instacast, Podcaster, PRX’s Public Radio Player, and show-specific apps such as the This American Life and NPR: Planet Money apps. But most of these other apps are streaming-only. If you don’t want to eat up huge amounts of 3G data and run down your battery while you’re outside of Wi-Fi range, you need a way to download podcasts and take them with you, which means you need an app like Podcasts that can save files to your device’s media library.

What It Means for Podcast Creators

For better or worse, the evolution of podcasting has always been linked to Apple and its ideas about digital media and mobile software. The very word “podcast” comes from the iPod, the first popular device that could be made to function as a sort of audio mailbox, or a DVR for radio. The first generation of podcast publishing and sharing tools such as Odeo (the thing Ev Williams built before Twitter) basically disappeared after 2005, when Apple first added a podcast directory to the iTunes Store. And it’s still iOS device owners who consume the vast majority of podcast content. So anything Apple does to make it easier for audiences to find and listen to podcasts must be good for podcast producers, right?

Well, yes, mostly. Speaking for myself, I’m likely to consume a lot more podcast content on my iPhone now that it’s so much easier to get it. But there are a couple of wrinkles for podcast creators to worry about. One is that Apple still isn’t allowing podcasters to charge for subscriptions, meaning podcasting will continue to be an LoL activity for most. (That’s for Loss Leader or Labor of Love, take your pick. But definitely not Laugh Out Loud.)

Another worry is the possibility that people might stop listening to podcasts altogether if they can’t find them through the Music app that comes with iOS. (Apple hasn’t evicted podcasts from the Music app quite yet, but this is likely to happen with the release of iOS 6.) Robert Wagner, a Portland, OR-based podcaster, says the disappearance of out-of-the-box support for podcasts in iOS would be “the beginning of the end” for the genre, since many people won’t know about the separate Podcasts app or won’t bother to download it.

But just because the Podcasts app turned up in the App Store this week doesn’t mean that Apple can’t make it one of the standard out-of-the-box apps in iOS 6. And there’s a big plus to the app that should excite podcasters: it plugs a huge hole on the iPad. When Apple came out with iOS 5 in October 2011, it also overhauled the old “iPod” app, replacing it with the Music app. There were (and are) many, many things to dislike about the iPad version of the Music app, and one of them was the way it tucked podcasts away in an obscure category called “More.” (Podcasts later disappeared entirely from the app.) The new Podcasts app brings podcasts back to the iPad; in other words, it’s exactly the sort of “Newsstand for podcasts” app that many Apple observers have been asking for ever since the company screwed up podcasting support with iOS 5. It’s not the beginning of the end; it’s just the end of a very long beginning.

What It Means for Apple

After years of criticism, including quite a bit from me, Apple seems to be getting serious about its iTunes problem. The issue is a simple one: bloat. What started out as a simple music-management program grew, over the course of a decade, into a Hydra-headed monster that handled everything from ripping CDs to activating iPhones and iPads to … Next Page »

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

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