Why Did Apple Make A Standalone Podcast App?

Podcasts appApple recently introduced a standalone podcast app for iOS devices, describing the software as “the easiest way to discover, subscribe to, and play your favorite podcasts on your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.” iOS already offered the ability to subscribe to podcasts before, so why introduce a new podcast app? Didn’t the iTunes and the Music apps work well enough?

You may think the answer is obvious: Apple wants to make podcasts more visible to consumers. What better way to do so than by introducing an app called Podcasts? Perhaps, but Apple’s intentions may not be as beneficial to podcast consumption as seems at first glance. In this article I’ll present some theories as to why Apple introduced a standalone podcast app.

Before offering those theories, let’s look at how Apple has impacted podcasting in the past. It’ll also be useful to look at some of the current reactions to Apple’s new podcast app.

Apple’s Impact on Podcasting

Podcasts first became widely discovered by consumers after Apple’s inclusion of podcasts in its software in 2005. Though some podcast consumers use podcast clients (sometimes referred to as podcatchers or aggregators) other than the iTunes software to manage the podcasts they listen to (or watch), the vast majority of podcasts are downloaded using Apple’s application. In a recent episode of Today in Podcasting, podcasting expert Rob Walch analyzed statistics provided by podcast hosting service Liberated Syndication (libsyn):

“I look at our stats at lybsyn, and you add up every other aggregator out there — from where the downloads are coming from — and they’re not even one-tenth of what you get from iTunes.”

Apple’s software has had a tremendous impact on podcast consumption, but not everyone has been satisfied with the company’s approach. This is evident in some of the responses to Apple’s most recent podcast app. Adam Curry, a long-practicing podcaster who was instrumental in the development of podcasting, has expressed an interest in developing an alternative to Apple’s solution. After testing out Apple’s new podcast app, Curry sees “a huge opportunity in the discoverability of podcasts”:

The app wants you to discover podcasts by either browing through a ‘radio dial’ metaphor, a directory of pre-determined subjects, or search

Considering that a podcast is no different from a blog with a different payload, this is not the way we have learned to discover content.

If we did, then presumable (sic) there would be some huge directory of blogs with a catalog, search and some form of browsing interface with ‘recommendations.

Curry would prefer to see a podcast app that behaves more like a social app. He would like to see a podcatcher that works more like his Podcast River, which he considers to be a more natural way to consume podcasts. He would like to see something far different from Apple’s podcast app.

Many other podcasters and podcast consumers have expressed a similar resistance to Apple’s podcast applications. Over the years a number of third party podcast apps have been developed for those who aren’t satisfied with the iOS apps. Downcast, Instacast, and iCatcher are some of the podcast apps that have been in the marketplace for podcast consumers to enjoy. Each of these solutions has more features than Apple’s new podcast app, which many consider to be a beta-quality product. Some also say these podcatchers are easier to use than Apple’s podcast app. So why did Apple feel the need to challenge these other developers?

Some have compared the introduction of the podcast app to Apple’s release of iTunes 4.9 in 2005. Back then, developers were way ahead of Apple in meeting both podcasters’ and podcast consumers’ needs. Developers were profiting from Apple’s inattention to the emerging technology, and consumers were moving away from using Apple’s iTunes application for their content consumption needs. So Apple disrupted the marketplace for podcast clients by introducing the ability to manage podcasts into its iTunes application. As a result, some consumers went back to using iTunes for all of their content consumption needs. The main affect, however, was to introduce consumers who were not yet aware of podcasts to the emerging technology.

Other than its invention of the iPod, Apple had little to do with the invention of podcasting. That said, the consumer electronics juggernaut had an undeniable influence on the technology/industry/hobby simply by incorporating podcast discovery into its applications. For years, consumers of Apple laptop or desktop computers have been stumbling upon podcasts simply by digging through the iTunes Store. Owners of iPhones and iPads have had the opportunity to discover podcasts through the iTunes and Music apps on their devices. Going forward, anyone with an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch will be able to discover podcasts through the Podcasts app.

Yet not every consumer of an iOS device has checked out podcasts. Some will never subscribe to a podcast. Others are hardly aware of podcasts. The fact is, there’s been considerable debate over whether Apple’s influence has ultimately hindered podcasting more than it has helped it. Since the day podcasts became available through the iTunes Store, podcasters and podcast consumers alike have discussed their concerns about Apple’s implementation of podcatching. Some accused Apple of burying podcasts in its applications. Many others criticized the company for highlighting its paid content offerings over the free downloads provided by podcasters. So why does Apple now seem to be offering podcasts in an exclusive app, sharing an equal stage with it’s more lucrative applications?

Why a Separate Podcast App?

Theory #1: Meh Theory

For one thing, Apple may have finally accepted that podcasts are not going to take a significant bite out of their paid content offerings. Regardless of the popularity of podcasts, consumers are still going to be purchasing iTunes, buying movies from the iTunes Store and spending money for iBooks and audio books. Though a small number of anti-capitalist voices do exist in the podosphere, the vast majority of podcasters have never intended to undermine the paid content system. In fact, most podcasters these days would enthusiastically admit a desire to either directly or indirectly profit from their productions. So Apple may be simply accepting that podcasts have little effect on their bottom line, and therefore they no longer see the need to bury the free content deep within their marketplace. It’s kind of like Apple stating, “Podcasts? Meh…we’re not worried about them anymore. Enjoy to your heart’s content.”

Theory #2: Monetary Theory

A less likely possibility for the prominence of the Podcasts app is being discussed in some corners of the podosphere: that of Apple’s intention to monetize podcasts in the near future. Some evidence of what appears to be a mechanism for redeeming payments for content currently exists in certain builds of the Podcasts app. It’s certainly feasible that Apple has long considered ways to make money from podcasts; perhaps they now feel they have discovered a manner in which to distribute podcasts for direct profit. As noted by Rob Walch (in his aforementioned podcast), however, it’s quite unlikely that Apple would take on such a task, as it would almost surely require some form of monitoring and policing of millions of hours of content. Unless Apple has engineered some form of artificial intelligence able to accomplish such an undertaking, it’s more likely that the code discovered in Apple’s current build(s) of its Podcasts app points more to the software still being under construction rather than to evidence that Apple is looking to distribute podcasts for profit.

Theory #3: My Theory

Though it may sound ironic, Apple may simply be attempting to diminish the status of podcasts by delivering an app dedicated to them. Though Apple has never received a direct flow of revenue from making podcasts available through its software, the company once saw a portion of device sales resulting from both podcast consumers and aspiring podcast producers desiring to jump in to the podcasting arena. These days, more consumers are directly streaming content using a variety of iOS apps on their devices — even the Podcasts app includes an implementation of streaming — and more podcast producers are using inexpensive netbooks to record and distribute their podcasts. Perhaps Apple no longer sees podcasting — either as an industry or as a hobby — as bringing in enough revenue to justify the costs associated with maintaining their attention to it. If that is the case, then Apple is effectively demoting podcasting’s status by separating the technology from their more well-known and revenue-returning applications (such as its iTunes and Music apps, both of which help sell iOS devices).

At first glance, setting up a separate podcast app may seem like a boon to podcasting since it makes podcasts seem more prominent. It’s true that more consumers will discover podcasts because of the app. Yet if Apple, at this point in time, finds podcasting to be considerably less profitable than other content is to their core business — developing and selling hardware — the consumer electronics company may turn indifferent toward the industry/hobby. If that is the case right now, then Apple may’ve already decided to pay far less attention to developing a solid podcast client than it will continue to give in developing its more revenue-generating apps. (A quick scan of some of the new app’s customer reviews seems to indicate this.)

Right now the Podcasts app is available for download, and I’m truly hoping that Apple intends to have the app pre-installed in the next generation of its mobile operating system. If the Podcasts app is situated right next to the iTunes and Music apps on every iOS device from this point forward, more consumers will discover the technology and more podcasters will find consumers of their content. One way or another, however, Apple is intending to profit from their new podcast app. Whether it’s by helping deliver podcasts to consumers or by hastening a separation from the technology is anyone’s guess at this point.

What’s your opinion? Am I way off on this? Am I right on the money? Let me know in the comments section below.