I am a big, big consumer of podcasts. I became really fascinated by the ability for anyone -from large established media companies to individuals with an opinion and a microphone- to be able to record audio programs, and distribute them as easy to grab “episodes” over the Internet. I loved the idea of being able to listen to people discussing my favorite topics at moments during the day where you are either doing nothing but when reading is not practical, or when performing low-duty tasks that don’t need your full attention. Commuting to work by train or bus, walking to the grocery store, doing the dishes and other household tasks and my semi-daily walks past the Waal river: they are all accompanied by what I tend to call a “spoken magazine” : a podcast episode for me to enjoy.
Currently, I listen to about a dozen podcasts, mainly covering the Mac. They range from daily shows such as the excellent Mac OS Ken from Ken Ray, who summarizes the Apple news from various sources in about 15 minutes, via the hour-long weekly MacWorld podcast, up until the MacBreak Weekly show, which, depending on its panel of hosts, can be up to one and a half hour long (my absolute favorites are the ones featuring Andy Ihnatko, the funniest and one of the cleverest Apple commenters around). My favorite blogger (and inspirator for starting my own blog) John Gruber from the Daring Fireball also hosts his own show every few weeks, simply called The Talk Show. And then there are some local shows in Dutch that I listen to, such as the One More Thing podcast (which, despite its name, is in Dutch), whose three presenters pioneered podcasting in The Netherlands in 2005.
Needless to say, I am a heavy user. I was therefore very pleased that starting iTunes 4.9 in June of 2005, Apple made podcasts a central part of its audio jukebox software and the iPod interface. Prior to that, seperate podcast aggregators had to fetch your episodes and transfer them to iTunes as playlists. There was no way to identify them as podcasts, let alone benefit from the later advantages that the official podcast support brought to iTunes and the iPod, such as a notification of what episodes are unlistened, and picking up from where you left, even if you played some other podcasts or music in the meantime. One of Apple’s motivators for including podcast support was the inclusion of a podcast directory in its iTunes Music Store, as although the podcast searching did not generate them any money directly, it was a nice way to introduce a lot of people to the other content the Store has to offer.
For the iPhone, podcast support has been there since ithe beginning. However, only since firmware version 2.1, podcast support became really neat, showing extra information fields in the episode listings, such as the name of its creators, and the remaining playing time. Actually, there was only one obvious thing missing: the ability to download new podcasts directly on the device, rather than uploading them from your computer during an iTunes sync.
As you can imagine, I was thrilled when the first rumours emerged that the iPhone 2.2 software would let users download podcast episodes directly on the device. I sync most of my other data on my iPhone over-the-air (a Mac mini running Kerio Mail Server gives me always up-to-date e-mail, contacts and calendars (the latter one including the shared calendar of my girlfriend, who is also an iPhone user), and MobileMe takes care of syncing my Safari bookmarks). The only thing that still needed a daily sync with iTunes on my Mac was the transfer of new podcast episodes.
So can I be wire-free since iPhone 2.2’s new podcast retrieval feature? Sadly not.
I think Apple made some wrong decisions in the way the handling of grabbing new podcasts is handled on the iPhone, and that most of these were based on two leading factors. First, take care of avoiding accidential downloading of data over telecom networks. And second, make sure that the iTunes Store remains the location that people need to go for new podcasts, for reasons stated above.
Let’s go into some of the details of the iPhone 2.2’s new podcast functionality:
- You cannot “subscribe” to a podcast. There is no ability to automatically download a new episode when it becomes available. I can imagine, however, that leaving a several podcast subscriptions running could easily lead to the accidential downloading of hundreds of megabytes of data. Telecom operators would not be happy. However, why not at least check a podcast feed for new episodes at a given interval, and then notify the user that a new podcasts is available for manual download? The only way to see if any podcasts are available is to click the “Get more episodes” link at the bottom of each podcast listing. This brings us to the following issue.
- Contrary to the situation on the Mac or PC, where the podcast directory and episode downloading are integrated into the same iTunes application that manages and plays your media files, on the iPhone there is a clear distinction between the iTunes Store application that handles the downloading of podcast episodes, and the iPod application that is responsible for playing them. This means that once you select the “Get more episodes” link, the iPod app will quit and you will go to the iTunes Store app. Once you have performed the needed actions for downloading an episodes, you need to go back to the iPhone’s Home screen, navigate to the iPod app, start it, go to the Podcast section and begin playback. This is the same kind of behaviour that I dislike in applications that feature a “Mail this info” button: You leave the app, go to the Mail app, and afterwards you manually need to start your original app again and navigate to where you left of. Bottom line: Why not include this downloading of podcasts within the iPod app itself?
- This lack of integration showcases one of the biggest ommissions in the iTunes app’s Podcast section. When you are looking at a list of recent episodes you can download, there is no way to see what episodes you already have downloaded. This means that you have to remember the title or date of the latest episode in the iPod app, click the “Get more episodes” link and then select the appropriate new episode to download. Bizarre.
- Worse, if you select an episode that is already stored on your iPhone, it will simply re-download the episode, and replace it (or leave it alone, depending on your view) in the iPod app. A needless waste of bandwidth.
- You need to check for new episodes for each individual podcast, there is no “Check all podcasts for new episodes” or something. This means a lot of juggling between the iTunes app and the iPod app, as you need to repeat these tiresome steps for each individual podcast.
- Podcasts you download on the iPhone are always copied back to the computer at an iTunes sync. You cannot turn this off. For most users like me, there is no need to have the podcasts stored on my Mac as well, adding needless extra time to the already lenghty iTunes sync process.
- Strange: You can delete a podcast episode on the iPhone by using the familiar swipe-gesture, but in case the podcast is listed in iTunes on your computer, it will be copied back to the iPhone during sync. The “Deleted” flag is obviously not copied to the computer.
- There is a 10 MB limit for downloading over the cellular network, similar to the limitations for applications in the App Store. If you try to download an episode that is bigger than 10 MB, you are instructed to connect to a Wi-Fi network and try again. I can understand the burden that lies with the telecom operator when people download big files over their network, but in this case it makes downloading of podcasts without Wi-Fi practically impossible. 10 MB translates into roughly 10 minutes of audio, eliminating most of my podcasts from downloading without Wi-Fi. (To be fair, there is also a “streaming” option in the iPhone’s iTunes Store app, so that instead of downloading an episode, you can also listen to it in full by streaming it. Playback continuity however largely depends on your cellular signal strength this way, and it also puts a large burden on battery life.)
But the biggest gripe for me is the fact that you cannot check for new episodes from podcasts of which there are no episodes currently stored on your iPhone. For the past years, I had the habit of deleting every episode from iTunes that I listened to, resulting in the episode being removed from the iPod/iPhone as well during the next sync. Consider this a bit like “status read/unread” practices for e-mail: it was a way for me to get an instant glance at what episodes are still waiting for me to be listened to. However, when there are no episodes currently stored for a particular podcast, its entire entry is removed from the iPhone during sync. And when a podcast is not listed, there is no “Get more episodes” link, eleminating you from downloading new episodes (unless you are willing to go to the iTunes app, search for the podcasts title, and then download the desired episodes).
I have circumvented this issue by setting iTunes on my Mac to always retain the one most recent episode, and sync every episode to the iPhone, so that there is always a listing of all my podcasts available, each containing one episode. I must leave the habit of ditching played episodes, as this would lead to the inability to download new episodes on the phone.
So to summarize: The whole procedure of looking for and downloading new episodes on the iPhone is so cumbersome, that I still check for new episodes on my Mac, and then sync them over to the iPhone. Only in these occasions that I am away from home with no new episodes to listen to, I (look for a Wi-Fi network to join and) check for new episodes of each individual podcast to download directly to my iPhone.
And I simply have to forget the fantasy that I had when I first heard the iPhone 2.2 rumors about just plugging my phone into its power charger next to my bed at night and not needing to dock it and sync with iTunes every day. Let’s hope Apple will have a good hard look at the podcast functionality in the iPhone again, so that they can surprise us with some better solutions next firmware time around.