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 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 storing books, apps, TV shows, and movies to toasting bread. The addition of the Ping social network for music fans in 2010 was my personal breaking point—that’s when I wrote a long rant calling iTunes the epitome of cruft and predicting that Apple’s burgeoning digital-media empire would falter unless it ditched the program and started over.

Well, Apple hasn’t killed off iTunes yet. But it’s paving the way, at least on the mobile side, by introducing iCloud (which largely ended the scourge of sync) and assigning the jobs formerly handled by iTunes and the old iPod app to a series of standalone apps. Last year it peeled videos off into a separate Videos app. Then came the iBooks app for managing e-books and the iTunes U app for lecture series, both with their own built-in stores. Now we’ve got a separate Podcasts app as well.

And there’s word that Ping will be retired with the next release of iTunes, which makes sense, since no one used it. I think these moves are more than just housekeeping. As Peter Kafka at AllThingsD puts it, they “may signal an effort to put iTunes on a diet, something many Apple fans have asked for.” That would be a welcome change. It may have made sense to consolidate digital media management tasks in one program back in 2005, when the most powerful multimedia gadget in Apple’s lineup was the video iPod. But it makes no sense today, when iPods, iPhones, and iPads are powerful standalone computers with their own connections to the cloud.

“Given everything the company has riding on iTunes,” I wrote back in 2010, “the idea of rebuilding the program from scratch (or more likely, breaking it into several programs, in order to bring some logic to the media management madness) must seem incredibly risky and ambitious.” It’s good to see Apple gathering up its courage.

Update, July 23, 2012: I’ve been using the new Podcasts app regularly for three weeks now, and I feel compelled to temper some of the excitement I expressed the June 29 article above. As it turns out, this is a buggy app that falls far below Apple’s usual standards. The main issue, for me, is lag: touch commands often produce no result, or take 10 to 20 seconds or more to register. Other users are reporting problems with crashes and subscription syncing, and the app is drawing a large number of 1-star reviews in the iTunes App Store. Until Apple can make the app more responsive, I’m unable to recommend it. Readers may be better off for now using an app like Downcast or Sketcher or downloading podcasts one at a time from iTunes.

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

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