Apple's Podcast App Reviewed

I was wrong about Apple. When they replaced the iPod app with “Music” (in iOS 5) I thought they were finished promoting podcasts and had decided to focus on promoting the stuff that they sell — music and videos. Fortunately, that turned out to be false. “Music” was just the first (welcome) step in breaking up the iTunes monopoly into smaller more manageable components. Music and movies turned out to be only the first two such components. We also have iTunesU, iBooks, and now Podcasts, Apple’s dedicated podcatcher and podcast player.

That’s all for the good. Although Podcasts is clearly not the best in the field, the more important point is that it is a signal that Apple does believe that the world of podcasting is important enough to deserve its own app. It should draw more attention to podcasts. Folks who don’t know about podcasts now have a better chance of discovering this world.

When Apple dumped the iPod app, I decided to replace Music’s meager remaining podcast support with Downcast. Frankly, I should have switched sooner. It was so strongly superior to iPod and Music that there was no comparison.

Perhaps Apple has the perspective that Podcasts should be compared to podcast support that was in “Music” instead of what’s in the third-party podcatchers. I expect that Apple is thinking of its very broad customer base rather than the audience of podcast fans that third-party app developers serve. To serve that audience, it needs to be simple and intuitive.

I don't think they succeeded at all. In its current state, it cries out for a product manager and a major redesign. It continues their misguided preoccupation with skeuomorphic interfaces that get in the user’s way.

Let’s take a look. I'll also compare Podcasts to Downcast and to two other third-party podcatchers, Instacast HD and iCatcher.

What’s better about Podcasts

It’s a Podcatcher!

It’s a real podcatcher!!! Finally! You can subscribe to podcasts from the official iOS app. You don’t have to run back to your computer to subscribe or update. It also can either stream or download. Hooray!!

List View

Podcasts has both icon and list views of your subscribed podcasts. I thought it was unacceptable that Music didn’t — you needed to look at a grid of large icons regardless of personal preference. Podcasts offers both the Icon view and the List view. The List view is well-designed. It presents the list of subscribed podcasts on the left and the list of available episodes on the right.

Podcast listing

You can subscribe to or unsubscribe from a podcast from the Tools pop-up. In this shot, I am subscribing to the newly reborn Core Intuition podcast.

Podcasts subscribing

What’s not so hot about Podcasts

Discovering New Podcasts

On one hand, its great that Apple is in the game with a first-party podcatcher. It’s disappointing that they still don’t “get” narrowcasting. Podcasting doesn’t work like Big Content. It works more like the audio version of YouTube. The unique strength of the system is that there are many thousands of little low-budget podcasts on narrow to incredibly narrow topics. Its that diversity that makes the system so rich and fertile. It’s a whole lot more like YouTube than NBC.

Unfortunately, Apple has chosen to play this as if it were Big Content. For the podcast universe, the tools for discovering new podcasts need to be entirely different.

Top Stations

At the bottom of the screen there’s buttons for Podcasts and for Top Stations. The former is for your list of subscribed podcasts and the latter is for discovering new ones (For some reason, they use the metaphor of radio stations for podcasts; more of that later).

Tapping Top Stations displays a weird three-level hierarchical view of their choices of “top” podcasts (aka, stations). The layout is dominated by a few huge icons of the so-called “top stations.“ You swipe the top banner horizontally to change the category, as you would scan an AM radio dial (does anyone here remember???). Under each category name at the top, you see tick marks that indicate how many subcategories are nested in that category. For example, the Comedy category has only one subcategory, so no extra subcategory ticks appear.

Podcasts Comedy category

The category to its left, Business, has several. If you swipe horizontally to center Business, the name of its rightmost subcategory appears. It tuns out to be “Shopping.”

Podcasts shopping subcategory

The large icon can be swiped vertically to show the other “top stations” in that Category or Subcategory. For example, this shot shows the Shopping subcategory after swiping “The Dealista.” It turns out to be “CABi.” Cool.

Podcasts subcategory

The selected icon has a teeny little “i” icon to its right. Tap it to get info on the selected podcast/station. Here’s the Info screen for the currently selected podcast. Of course, the content of this screen is under the control of the individual podcaster.

Podcasts subcategory

This one isn’t terribly informative, but I can’t blame Apple for that. Unfortunately, in this view you can’t swipe the list vertically to see information about the adjacent podcasts. In order to browse within that subcategory you need to return to the Icon view and swipe vertically.

Since they use these huge icons, the selection is pretty limited. For example, in the Shopping subcategory there’s five podcasts. Some subcategories have as many as six, but others have as few as two. I suppose it’s a valid definition of “top”, but it isn’t much of a sample of what actually appears in the podcast world.

When I searched for “Shopping” in Downcast, I get a list of 100 podcasts. It looks like 100 is the default in Downcast.

Downcast exploring shopping

When I tried Instacast HD, I got 12.

Instacast searching shopping

When I tried iCatcher, I got a long list but with a “More” button at the bottom, so I conclude that the number of items is indefinite.

iCatcher shopping search

You can see how much more informative the third-parties are. You do have a “top podcasts” choice, but you can also explore any topic deeply.

Search in Podcasts

To get past the podcasts listed in Top Stations, you need to get out of this section. Fortunately, you can. Tap Catalog to get there (bottom-left corner). That flips the display again. Basically, you’re now in a section in iTunes and you’re already signed in. Of course, their concept of the top podcasts is prominently displayed. Once again, there’s six of them — six audio podcasts and six video podcasts. In the header, you can see a Search field!!

Podcasts home screen

By default, you can browse the collection of podcasts or you can explore podcasts by category. Tap Category to display the podcast categories in this interface.

Podcasts categories

You can tap a category or enter any search string (keyword, name, podcaster) and it will display the results in the iTunes format.

However, you can’t enter the URL of a feed.

To continue our example, let’s continue exploring the Shopping podcasts. “Shopping” is not one of the categories, but we can enter it into the Search field. Here’s what we get:

Podcasts shopping search

You now have another list of the top six Shopping podcasts, but it is different list than Top Stations! Whatever.

When you are finished, click “Library.” The screen flips around again and returns you to the Top Stations subcategory that you were in!

Ugh! Talk about a disconnected, modal interface! Two parallel structures for exploring the iTunes podcasts collection — one is unlimited and familiar and the other is limited and very awkward. Hopefully, this will get less disjointed in time. Right now it appears that a section of iTunes was bolted onto Podcasts.

BTW, several have noticed that this iTunes screen still has that Redeem button, but there is no way to redeem anything in the context of podcasts. I’m guessing that it is simply a leftover from the iTunes app itself, where it does have a use for paid content.

However, the existing podcast format does support the concept of members-only (paid) subscriptions. Downcast, for example, has an interface for subscribing to paid feeds. It enables you to provide your username and password along with the feed. From then on, the members-only subscription will be updated in the usual way. Podcasts doesn’t offer support for the type of paid subscription that actually exists, but instead offers this useless Redeem button.

Working with Subscribed Podcasts

To return to the player environment, tap Podcasts at the bottom of the screen. You get the Icon or List view of your subscribed podcasts.

Podcasts listing

In the list of episodes, you can tap the little “i” icon for an episode to get its description inside a little balloon. In all the cases I tested, the balloon is sized to show all of the description. It isn’t truncated, like it is in Instacast HD.

Podcasts show description

One thing that isn’t cool is that the podcast description isn’t necessarily complete. There’s two big omissions: links and chapter markers. The other uncool thing is that the episode description is only on the list view, not a playback view.

Episode Links

I haven’t found one instance in which the links in the episode notes are included, as they are in Instacast ID, iCatcher, and Downcast. For example, here’s Instacast HD’s version of the same podcast’s notes.

Instacast show notes

Moreover, the third-party podcatchers enable you to click a link and display that page within the player. Here’s the Instacast HD screen again after I clicked on a link to a MacWorld story in the above show notes.

Instacast web browsing

With a third-party player, you can check out the links in the notes from within the app. In Podcasts, you need to get the URL to the show notes yourself and launch your browser to check them out.

I’m not just being picky. I take advantage of Downcast’s modeless interface all the time. As the presenter is speaking, I like to check out the notes and links for the topic he is on.

Very typical dialog in Hypercritical is that Mr. Siracusa would say something like “...and I put a link to such-and-such in the show notes...” and Dan would pipe up and give the URL to the show notes and tell us who sponsored the notes!

It’s such a convenience to blow past all that and just click the link that John mentioned and check it out while he is speaking.

I suppose it’s tempting to pigeonhole the third-party podcatchers for advanced users and Apple’s app for beginners. I don’t think so. I think the third-party podcatchers are more convenient for everybody. The scenario that Dan provides is only for the “worst-case.” It’s only for those who don’t have a player that integrates show notes into the player.

Chapter Markers

The AAC “enhanced” format that Apple pioneered includes support for defining podcast tracks. Instead of having to write down the starting points of the topics and slip them into the show notes, a podcaster can use this AAC feature embed the markers right inside the podcast. The old iPod player (pre-iOS 5) was one such player; it could list the tracks and their lengths. The user could click an item on the list and play the tracks in any order. Fantastic!

The Music app unaccountably removed that feature, so an enhanced AAC podcast is played as if it were a generic mp3 podcast. Fortunately, the Downcast, iCatcher, and Instacast HD podcatchers all support chapter markers. That’s one reason I put away Music.

The MacCast is one of the few tech podcasts that does support the AAC enhanced feature set. In Downcast, the list of chapters is displayed in a pop-up menu. If that little tag icon appears in its header, the podcast has AAC chapter markers.

Downcast chapter markers

Here’s Instacast HD’s list of chapters for the same podcast. The chapters are mainstreamed with the rest of the episode’s notes. No modal pop-up is needed.

Instacast chapter markers

Podcasts doesn’t display the chapter list at all. I think this is unacceptable since:

  • AAC enhanced is Apple’s own format.
  • The old iPod app displayed the chapter list. Apple should not go backwards.

Podcasts should serve as the role-model for third parties; it should promote Apple’s own special features and help make new users aware of them. As it stands, we need to rely on the third parties to support Apple’s own format.

Playing a Podcast

To play a podcast, simply tap it. The screen changes to another large view of the podcast’s icon. Below the icon, you now have the controller (minus a playhead) and the volume control.

Podcasts icon

The controller is awfully basic compared to the Big Honking Controller of Downcast (my favorite).

Downcast detail

In addition to the standard playback and volume controls, it includes forward and backward skipping, refresh, browse for new podcasts, chapter markers (if available), and playback speed levels.

There’s some additional playback speeds in Downcast that are hidden in a pop-up.
Hold down the Playback Speed indicator (top-left corner) to reveal plenty of choices. If you like to customize the playback speed, Downcast is for you.

Downcast playback speed

Skeuomorphic Now!

It turns out that more controls are hidden behind the huge icon in Podcasts. To access them, drag the screen upwards, as if you are opening a window blind to get the sunlight. When you do so, it reveals an animated reel-to-reel tape deck.

Podcasts tape deck

A graphic artist at Apple has way too much time.

If the podcast does have chapter markers, there actually is a subtle indicator here: The one-piece bar of the timeline is replaced by several segments. The lengths of each segment denote the lengths of that chapter!! You also get the chapter number in a bar below the timeline. The header displays the name of the current chapter, but there is no list of chapters. You can only gradually deduce the chapter names by dragging the playhead from one segment to another. Podcasts displays the name of that chapter so you can build your own chapter list by jotting down the names as you gradually discover them.

Geez. Write your own joke here.

Podcasts tape deck with markers

Podcasts can display the episode description, but not from the playback screens. To get to the episode’s description, put the playback screen away and return to the list view or for that podcast. The episode continues to play, but you’ve lost the controller! But you do get an “i” icon for the podcast in the list that is playing. Tap it to get the show notes in the little bubble.

I don’t see how or why Podcast’s approach is better even for beginners.

No matter. In the skeuomorphic screen, you’ve also got a sleep timer, support for email, messages, and tweets,standard playhead controls, one level of forward and backward skipping, and three playback speeds. It appears that the latter are inspired by Susan Kare’s mouse tracking icons from the original 1984 Macintosh! This screen is truly retro!

Comment

(As if I’ve been neutral up to now.)

Initial reactions have been somewhat positive, but I think that’s because “Music” set such low expectations. And podcsters were scared by the rumor that podcast support might be pulled from iOS 6. From that vantage point, folks have reason to be relieved and glad that podcasting has its own first-party app even if it is messed up.

Now that Podcasts has shipped, I think its more reasonable to use the old iPod app as an historical baseline. In the larger context, its now clearer that Podcasts is the successor to the official podcast support in iPod.

From that perspective, I’m unhappy that Podcasts doesn’t even provide the same level of support for AAC enhanced podcasts that the iPod app did. iPod used a simple matter-of-fact interface, but it displayed the chapters as a linked and scrollable list. For example, here is a list of chapter links that was taken from an ancient out-of-contract iPhone 3.

AAC chapters on iPhone 3G

An iPhone 3 cannot be upgraded to run Podcasts, but that’s why I can still use chapter links in Apple’s official podcast player. Just sayin’...

Who’s Running the Show?

Now that I’ve finished evaluating this thing, that’s the meta-question that I have on my mind. I’m hopeful that Podcasts is a work in progress and we will get an improved rev with iOS 6. Realistically, it needs more than a touch-up.

This version screams out that it needs a product designer; instead, they’ve got a graphic artist. There’s a big difference. By product designer, I mean “visionary”; by graphic artist I mean “pixel pusher.”

The graphic artist went wild with that skeuomorphic reel-to-reel tape deck and the Top Stations “tuner.” Both screens betray a love affair with analog audio of the past. When I say “past“ I mean distant past — like when Steve was the right age to be playing in a literal sandbox instead of supervising a metaphorical sandbox. I was alive then and remember those devices fondly, but I wonder whether the bulk of the iOS audience can even relate to those metaphors. I expect that the more common reaction will be more like a giant WTF.

BTW, when I was a kid, my high school had a little toy radio station for the kiddos. It was cobbled together from old components that were donated by local radio stations. For commercial stations, the components had reached end-of-life before I even enrolled. My favorite was an Ampex 350 tape deck — full-track, 10.5" reels, and 15 IPS. It was this model:

Ampex 350 tape deck

This was the best of 1950’s technology: the Duesenberg of tape recorders! (It cost something like $2,000 in 1960 dollars.) That tape transport panel flipped upwards to reveal the massive motors. The capstan motor alone must have had half the horsepower of a VW Beetle. An Ampex was built to last. And so it did.

I actually remember this old gear, but even that doesn’t help. In practice, the skeuomorphic interfaces only remind me of the disadvantages of the analog past.

That skeuomorphic tape deck takes the place of genuinely useful show notes, links, and chapter titles. That ill-conceived Top Stations section takes up space that should be devoted to an up-to-date concept of browsing a very large catalog. In Top Sections, we’ve inexplicably switched to the metaphor of analog radio. Instead of discovering podcasts, we are now supposed to relate to the metaphor of talk radio stations. We are now asked to “tune” categories by swiping from left to right.

Instead of evoking fond memories of the past, it only reminds me of how awkward analog tuning really was. For example, if you are interested in the Technology category, you need to change your current location to that category in the metaphorical tuner. People living now are used to Google search in which you don’t need to move from one physical location to another. Why in the world would they develop an interface that teaches users how inconvenient analog devices used to be?? Who do they think the target audience is??

Suggestions

Do you see what I mean about Apple’s having a graphic artist rather than a product manager? This release reveals a sense of misdirected priorities. If it wasn’t Apple, it would look like the interface was designed by a company who was new to the internet.

An appropriate priority would be to showcase the richness, depth, and variety of the podcast universe.