Yesterday, Apple released a new flagship iOS application: "Podcasts". Yep, only a few days after I predicted such a thing, it happens.
As I said before, I had no inside information about the app. Although, I did hear a few rumblings at WWDC that the new Podcasts application was initially intended to be demonstrated during the WWDC Keynote, but was cut at the last minute.
So, was I right? Did Apple announce a full-fledged "App Store-style" backend interface for publishers to manage their podcasts? Push notifications for when new episodes are released? Let's dive in and find out.
Where I Was Wrong (For The Moment)
No new backend system was announced or released. However, a clue or two hinting at future improvements to this new system can be found in the app. I found two references to the concept of "paid" podcast episodes when playing around with the application. One mentioned "free" episodes, thus suggesting that some episodes might cost money. Another offers the option to "Redeem Code", again suggesting that some episodes may not be free.
I'm not done holding my breath on Apple offering an "App Store-style" backend system to allow publishers to sell episodes or even subscriptions to their shows.
Apple also hasn't brought any sort of push notification functionality to market with this intial release of Podcasts. I don't have any hard evidence here, but given the obviousness of providing push notifications for when new episodes are available, as well as automatic background downloads, I'd say it's only a matter of time before these features are implemented.
The new iOS Application
First, the facts: Podcasts is a pretty feature-rich universal iOS application that runs on both the iPhone and iPad. It requires the device to be running at least iOS 5.1. It allows users to discover and subscribe to podcasts, as well as download or stream individual episodes.
It's always a fun time when Apple releases a new flagship iOS application. Their latest releases of iMovie for iOS and iPhoto for iOS have boasted some pretty great user interfaces and seem to be quite well received by users. Let's see if Podcasts follows suit.
Apple chose a pretty interesting direction for it's "Top Stations" feature in Podcasts. I'm guessing their intention was to give those users who aren't as familiar with podcasts a way to quickly listen to something that might interest them. A sort of "channel surfing" concept for the couch-potato-would-be-podcast fans. It definitely delivers on the "channel surfing" concept, but educated users likely won't be too intrigued by this feature. From what I can tell, by default "Top Stations" seems to choose an episode at random from the currently selected show and begin playing it automatically. Possibly a neat way to discover new content, but I don't see many users heading back for a second or third use.
With Podcasts, Apple has essentially done for Podcasts what they did for books with iBooks: A separate iOS app, that you have to install from the App Store, that when launched, can "flip around" to reveal the place where you discover and download media. Even the animation for the flip back and foward matches iBooks pretty closely.
The Podcasts "catalog" interface, sadly, is still a giant web view. Not surprising given that all of Apple's "store" interfaces on iOS are designed this way, but boy does it show. The interface is uncharacteristically slow and unresponsive. I found tapping on a "subscribe" button to hang on almost every podcast I was attempting to subscribe to.
Oh boy. Welcome back to skeuomorphic-town. Well, if you're listenting to an audio podcasts at least. Watching video podcasts shows the video of the desired episode full-screen with the expected video controls. But load up an audio epsiode and you're in for a treat.
It's literally a tape deck. Immediately recognizable and impressive. I really love how well this interface comes across on the iPad, a device that not's too far off in size from actual tape recorders of the 1970's and 80's. I tested out the app on my iPhone 4S and iPad 3, and just as an aside, the app truly shines on the iPad 3. This type of graphical treatment on the iPad 3's retina screen really helps solidify Apple's stronghold on the "holy cow that looks awesome!" market. During playback, the podcast's cover art is displayed on top of a translucent "plastic" cover sitting on top of two spinning tape deck heads with "tape" running between the two decks. As you progress in the episode you're listening to, the tape visually transfers from the left to right side, just as it would on a real-life tape deck, quite an impressive effect. The control buttons located at the bottom of the screen appear to "press in" when tapped. They resemble the buttons of that old-school (now seemingly ancient) tape recorder you found in your parent's attic that time.
One nice touch is the speed control. As you change the rocking slider control from "turtle" to "hare", the tape decks begin to visibly ramp their speed up and down. Many podcast apps on iOS offer ability to speed up or slow down playback of episodes, but this sort of immediate and obvious user feedback feels like something only Apple could deliver.
Should you switch?
Tough to answer. Podcast clients are like RSS Readers, Twitter clients or E-mail applications: no one application can please everyone. With "Podcasts", Apple has served up a fairly strong competitor in to the "iOS podcatcher application" market, assisted greatly by what I'm calling the "default choice" factor. They own the platform, "Podcasts" comes close to appearing as the "default" application for interaction with Podcasts on iOS.
I personally still love Instacast for iOS. It too, is a universal iPhone and iPad app. Like Apple's "Podcasts", it uses iCloud to sync subscriptions, playback positions and played/unplayed states of episodes. As an added bonus, Instacast already does support push notifications for new episodes of shows you're subscribed to.
So while I would highly suggest anyone who has read this much of this article to check out "Podcasts", I think Apple has a few releases to go before this app starts to become the obvious choice.
"Podcasts" is available now for iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod touch (3rd generation), iPod touch (4th generation) and iPad devices running iOS 5.1 or later.