iPods and Podcasting – strategic talk

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday June 30 @ 9:40 am

Still on the plane, and catching up on my posts…..

Well, the announcement we have all been waiting for has finally arrived – Apple has released iTunes 4.9, the latest major release of Apple’s digital music manager/iPod transfer tool.

The big change in 4.9 is the addition of podcasting support. Podcasting is the latest incarnation of Internet radio. Instead of streaming, broadcasters – both professional and amateur – package up their programme as an MP3 file, for people to download in its entirety and transfer onto an MP3 player (or just play straight off their PC).

This means you can listen to your favourite shows whenever and wherever you want, not just when you are sitting at a PC with a working net connection that is fat enough to sustain the streaming feed.

The BBC has already jumped on the bandwagon for podcasting, having offered the Radio 5 gameshow Fighting Talk as a podcast for nearly a year now. Following on from the success of that trial, the Beeb now offers over 20 shows as podcasts, including the Today programme and In Business.

However, even with the backing of the BBC and other major broadcasters, podcasting has yet to grab the mainstream audience. With iTunes, this is now possible. Apple has integrated free podcasting content with its existing Music Store setup, has included support for RSS feeds, automatic checking and downloading of new programmes. Half the planet has an iPod, and thus uses iTunes, and the other half of the planet have other MP3 players and devices, but still use iTunes to manage their MP3s simply because it is the best thing out there for doing it. Either way, iTunes is the route into the homes of the mass audience. Unlike paid-for iTunes content, the podcasts are offered in straightforward MP3 format, not in Apple’s own AAC format, meaning that podcasts doanloaded through iTunes remain device neutral. Whether you have a Nokia phone with MP3 support or an iRiver, you can play these on your devices.

Of course, when 4.9 when online last night, the planet tried to subscribe to and download the top 20 podcasts at once, causing some service problems, but this morning, before I boarded my flight to Nice, everything was working fine, and iTunes happily downloaded the latest edition of the Nate and Di Show.

There is already a great deal of podcasting content available through the iTunes store, and this will grow at an amazing rate over the next couple of months as every podcaster out there gets on-board. I’m sure Apple will exercise their right not to carry some podcasts on the grounds of suitability and audio quality, but this is no big deal, as you can still directly subscribe to any podcast RSS feed directly in iTunes – you are not stuck with the iTunes store as your only source of podcasting material. For example, I have already added in an external RSS feed link for a show called Soccergirl Incorporated, and iTunes checks this feed and downloads new episodes as if it were an iTunes store feed.

In short – Apple once again are showing us the way. The company is bringing us ever closer to one-click podcasting subscription, while at the same time leaving the door open to podcasters that are not part of the walled garden that is the iTunes Music Store. I doff my cap to Steve Jobs and the rest of the iTunes team – you handled what could have been a PR and technology nightmare perfectly.

At the same time as the iTunes 4.9 launch, Apple also announced a reworking of the iPod line.

As expected, the one remaining standard mono-screen iPod (full-size, not the Mini) was finally axed from the line. Also axed, and a big shock to us all, was the 30GB iPod Photo. Instead, the full size iPod line will cosist of a new 20GB iPod Photo and the existing 60GB iPod Photo. These will now be know simply as iPod – the Photo bit has been ditched as there is no need to distinguish them from their full-size mono counterparts.

Sadly, there was no news about a refresh of the iPod Shuffle line. Despite much Internet speculation of larger capacities, the addition of a small LCD display and other enhancements, nothing was announced. We still hope that new Shuffles are in the works. Anything larger than the existing 1GB model will need some form of screen, as users will quickly find themselves with a device carrying 500+ songs and podcasts, and quickly losing all idea of what they are listening to, what is next, and what else is to come later on in their playlist.

Whatever happens, the iPod range needs to be rationalised – as good as they are, there are currently too many different models on sale. Apple has taken the first steps by axing the 20GB mono unit. Now they need to axe the 512MB and 1GB Shuffles and replace them with a single, larger capacity Shuffle (2GB would be ideal), with a 2-line LCD display that can display current song ID3 tags, as well as the contents of the playlist. A 2GB Shuffle with display does not need the same on-screen detail of a normal iPod, nor does it need the full functionality of a full iPod – no need for games or multiple playlists.

Finally, its time to ditch the 4GB iPod Mini – one iPod Mini is enough, and the 6GB one represents significant value for money.

Fewer models will ensure iPods remain an aspirational purchase, and ensure sales remain buoyant.

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