Lots of activity in the podcasting space at the moment, which hasn’t gone un-noticed by the likes of The Economist, who describe the addition of podcasting support to iTunes thusly "Any confusion about the term or the process has not mattered much, because podcasting tended to be almost exclusively for the young, geeky or both. Last week, however, that changed." and "the iPod has finally staked its claim to a medium that already bears its name." [The Economist: Fiddly no longer]
Apple’s integration of podcasting into iTunes will take podcasting to another level for sure. We’re yet to calculate the impact on the BBC shows we have in there yet, but I expect at least a blip. It’s a tightly-controlled offering, with the iTunes Music Store front-end repurposed for displaying podcasts which are vetted by Apple. This still provides a rich new set of content for many users, but it’s a very ‘industry’ feel for sure. Many thousands others have commented on the iTunes podcast integration so I’ll leave it for now, save a few words on the technicalities of the user experience. (There are many other real technical problems with iTunes’ podcast implementation.)
From a content provider point-of-view, due to Apple’s non-standard extensions, the BBC’s shows don’t look terribly good in the Top 10 (Author: Unknown), and we have to consider placing ‘proprietary’ code in our XML to solve that (though as will Odeo and many others). Further, the user experience within iTunes is a bit odd. In general, it’s a seamless piece of work but those lack of seams can be a problem when trying to figure out why your podcast files won’t appear as part of playlists where genre = ‘Podcast’. It appears to be because Apple have chosen to treat them as different media altogether, somehow separated from the rest of your library (despite them being plain ol’ mp3s) and closer to audiobooks. The latter has the advantage of enabling bookmark functionality, so shows resume playing where you left them previously, but is that worth the price for the fair bit of confusion this effectively invisible separation also enables? Having said that, a form of ‘chapters’ is also enabled – which should provide some interesting options for content providers interested in offering segmented shows. Also, the ‘Keep all episodes | all unplayed episodes | Most recent | Last 5 etc.’ functionality is great. So it’s a pretty mixed-bag (more here – scroll past the bile). It might be enough to see off the challenge of Odeo, another high-profile entrant into the podcasting admin space yesterday.
Tom Coates has a good review of Odeo gestating so watch his site. We’ve been thinking about and then evaluating Odeo (thanks to Tom’s efforts) at work for a few months now. It’s a great piece of work for sure, and Tom’s review will pick out all the salient points. The most interesting aspects for me, outside of the carefully executed user experience, is the ‘Create’ functionality – currently under-wraps but beautiful, believe me – and that it reinforces my thinking about distributed electronic programme guides (EPGs) and openness in general (cf. Designing for Hackability etc.). I’d guess that proprietary EPGs will be powerful beasts in the future (extrapolate Sky+, iTMS, MSN/Media Center, Napster etc), but that an equally powerful beast will be a distributed EPG, in which the Web – or more accurately IP-distributed communication between IP-enabled devices – will form a lattice of connections to media (including all the associated comments and interaction around shows cf. Social Life of a Broadcast). The web is the EPG.
And Odeo looks a fully-realised articulation of this approach at the moment – as long as the unsubscribe/subscribe buttons can be ‘disengaged’ from Odeo.com and placed on your own site, next to your podcast. In this way, Odeo’s helpful tendrils reach out to the web and the edges blur between sites usefully, such that you can sub/unsub from podcasts in a truly distributed sense. You coalesce centrally from time to time, going to Odeo to administrate, but generally your action is distributed. All in all, it’s got everything a ‘Class of 2005’ web-app should have, so congrats to Blogger-creator Ev Williams and Noah Glass et al.
The problem for Odeo is that all Apple need to do is follow suit on that aspect of the service – seamless distributed subscription – and they have a far more powerful play – true vertical integration from hardware to software, augmented by distributed input. You can imagine a small ‘iPodcast’ icon with associated code, distributed by Apple to podcasters to place on their site, which when performs the ‘subscribe at a distance’ functionality. They have a component of the ‘transport’ through to iTunes Music Store already figured out – having enabled the iTMS affiliate program, which links to particular tracks – this is simply an extension of that, messaging back and forth between your iTunes and the web. A more basic linkabilty would help too (though at least podcasts tend to have corresponding sites one can point at). Yet Apple tend to struggle with these aspects of informational product design, so let’s see if they act upon the interesting Odeo approach.
Odeo have a richer, open model for finding new content – their ‘EPG’ is open to anyone to drop content into. Apple’s storefront is far more controlled, and therefore ‘legal’ in the sense that the music industry will appreciate right now. I know why Apple have done the latter, and Odeo the former. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out. As ever, I expect no clear winners, simultaneous non-interoperable formats and interaction patterns, and nothing but bewildering complexity of experience and choice for the users 🙂
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