Alternate Option
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Thursday, June 30, 2005 1:34 am
Apple iTunes with podcasting is spectacular spectacular
iTunes 4.9 was released earlier today. I don’t think the term “podcasting”—which erroneously implies the use of an iPod—was coined by Apple. But Apple has used the fortuitously named feature, and embraced it big time with the new iTunes release.

I no longer own any iPods. But I listen to Internet broadcasts quite a bit—usually via streaming. RealPlayer streams from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Windows Media from certain foreign radio stations, and iTunes for MP3 radio.

But I hardly listen to MP3 versions of previously recorded stuff, e.g. the MP3 archives of ABC Radio National. It is cumbersome to find newish stuff to download, and the download usually takes longer than my attention span. I can listen to the MP3 file within my browser window. But then I might be interrupted, or might have the urge to listen to music halfway instead, and then lose the page (for whatever reason). If I download the MP3 file to the desktop/hard disk, then I still have to navigate to look for it, and possibly listen to it in the Finder, or consider copying it to iTunes. And then remember to delete it after I’m done listening.

So, listening to “podcasts”—which really are just MP3 files of previously recorded audio—used to be a chore. The tech-minded found and its variants probably ages ago, but I didn’t… 

And now I don’t have to. Podcasting in iTunes is a new feature of iTunes—not an extension of an old one. I decide what I want to listen to, and iTunes does the downloading, filing for me. And then automatically downloads more from the same ‘author’ when new material shows up. A radio subscription if you will.

This is logically the same direction that television has gone. Time-shifting is the buzzword nowadays, as digital television and personal video recorders becomes the hot new thing in Australian households. Time-shifting (TiVo etc. for non-Australians) frees viewers from television schedules, allowing them to watch what they choose when they choose to. And also to fast forward/rewind/archive when desired.

iTunes does that for audio broadcasts. And goes further to act as an interface for these content providers who want to set up their own podcasts. Large radio stations or any individuals alike can set up their own podcast, and iTunes makes it easier for listeners to subscribe to whichever podcast they find interesting. The current subscription interface is gorgeous. The iTunes Music Store (iTMS) currently handles a million-song archive, which suggests that the current podcast interface is likely to be scalable when more content providers choose to hawk their content via iTunes.

iTunes years entered the jukebox software market to compete with Winamp, MusicMatch, MediaMonkey etc. (on the Windows platform). It started off as an excellent library, with excellent optical-drive burning features. Then iTunes integrated with the iPod, and more recently with the iTMS. Entering new territory smoothly such that the entire experience is greater than the sum of each part. Doubtlessly with plenty of unseen hard work by software engineers working backstage.

The addition of podcasting is a similar bold step. One significant difference for the user: this step is free. There is no requirement to buy an iPod, or to spend 99¢ buying songs. Podcasting is for now… cost-free.

This is quite a canny move for Apple, and I suspect is an unintended solution to constant requests (by some) for radios on iPods. Radios on portable music players appear on some of the “iPod-killers” out there—and rightly out-feature any iPods if a checklist of features is compared.

Adding a radio to the iPod would probably be non-trivial, but would also probably add to the complexity of the iPod. The physical size would probably be larger, and the interface very probably need to be more complex. There will definitely be complaints about the quality of reception, and the radio acts as yet another point of failure.

Instead of adding a radio to the iPod, podcasting simplifies an existing Internet phenomenon, leverages the iTunes-iPod relationship and shifts any added complexity to the desktop computer; which suits the larger colour screens and the intricate keyboard/mouse interface. Podcasting also encourages the use of Apple software without an Apple-specific audio format. Finally, negligible change is made to the tried-and-proven design of the iPod itself. It is a brilliant move. Kudos.

Although each month heralds a new “iPod-killer” from Dell, Sony, Creative, Rio and Archos; Apple gracefully moves from strength to strength. Apple is dominant in the field of portable audio but, as mentioned in an earlier post, I do not think unbeatable. With some cooperation—and probably with the deep pockets of Microsoft—the rest of the field can still make make solid advances. While the other companies spin their wheels, Apple continues to innovate as if it has some real competition. This is good for consumers, but a challenge for the actual “competition”.

[posted with ecto]

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