Apple Rediscovers Its Own Post-PC Vision: Yes, The Podcast
Let me start by copping to a total lack of impartiality on this topic. I have been completely in the tank for podcasting for six years or more. I don’t understand why it isn’t bigger than it is. Time-shifted radio? Isn’t that as simple and compelling as it gets? And yet podcasting, which Apple named and proliferated in its mid-generation of iPods, never seemed to jump out of its niche -- nuts like me. In fact, Apple itself seemed to turn its back on its own genius innovation last year with iOS 5 when they made the podcast element in iTunes on devices impossibly hard to find. Why I couldn’t easily subscribe to my NPR, MSNBC, KCRW, Ted Talk, and G4 shows on the devices themselves has always been a total mystery to me, but now they were hard to find as well.
Apple is trying to make amends with yesterday’s release of its first party Podcasts app now available for iOS. Finally the podcast catalog is more accessible. You can subscribe to podcasts and listen to them via streaming or download for offline use. There are handy tools here like a sleep timer for those of us who might fall asleep to the podcasts.
As much as I am happy to have a dedicated app for podcasting I am surprised at how poor the design is here. the apps bounce back a decent iTunes catalog and a ham-handed Library interface that has crappy discovery and feels like a separate experience. I don’t get this bifurcated structure, especially coming from the company that worships simplicity. I get that it mimics the look of the iBookstore, but I think it feels fragmented and disorienting. There is a Top Stories section that lets you browse with a horizontal tuner slidebar that is terrible to manipulate on the iPhone, and actually positions your finger so it blocks the content tags that pop up as you scroll. The experience is only nominally better on the iPad.
Which is all too bad because my initial frustrations with the ell-intentioned app force me to pivot radically into a rant about the incredibly underrated (even by consumers) podcast media format. When the user gets a handle on the discovery and subscription process, podcasting should be the distribution mechanism of the post-PC device age. It lets you load your device with multimedia experiences that download automatically as updated and are ever-ready.
The process has been kludgy all along, and despite proselytizing podcasts to friends and family for years, most people just don’t want to be bothered. But this is a platform that comes closer to post-mass, personalized media than any I can imagine. This is where I look forward to my dose of Chris Matthews, my hit of NPR middlebrow-ism (Yeah, I am looking at you, Terry Gross) an occasional show about comic reprint by some guy with a mic somewhere in the Midwest, vintage radio from Warner Bros., the "60 Minutes" I keep managing to miss on TV, and more.
This is what the post-PC should resemble. For years already I have had video podcasts that accompany me to my stairmaster each morning, audio shows that plug into my car and still others that I listen to when lifting weights at the gym. This is nano-niche media that has been shaped and chosen for mobile moments in my day. Hell, I even have video podcasts on my TV and can spend an hour with them at a time before I even turn the live TV feed on. This is what happens when the user can control the media and map content to device and to time of day, even mode and mood.
And not coincidentally, I know that Audible and Bing sponsor the Slate Culture Gabfest. I discovered new sources for discount comics because my vintage comics podcast was brought to me by vendors who were laser targeted to my tastes. I can even recall that years ago ChiChi’s sponsored every daily Onion spoof radio news show with a five second end-piece.
When pull-based media becomes that personal, that ritualized, that well integrated with patterns in a person’s day -- the benefit for the aligned sponsor is as powerful as any I have experienced as a consumer. This is what the post-mass media world could and should be. Podcasting may be a backwater for enthusiasts like me who don’t mind making the effort for personalized media. But in it is the kernel of a future where media consumption maps against moments the user defines. In this media environment, advertising is not dead. It lives because it is part of something the consumer actually cares about.