Mike Elgan wrote an interesting piece on Cult of Mac recently that lays out a possible path forward for Apple with regards to the humble podcast. If you haven't heard, it appears that Apple will break podcasts out into a separate app with the release of iOS 6. This will help to lighten up the iTunes app, which is arguably a bit crowded and unwieldy. That's a good thing, but what will become of the podcast? It could go the way of iTunesU, which was stripped out of the iTunes app not too long ago and is now offered as an optional download. That's what we could call the 'demotion to obscurity' path. As Elgan points out, this made sense for iTunesU because the user base for lectures is narrow. For podcasts, however, such a move might signal that Apple doesn't really care about the podcast medium, choosing instead to focus only on content that makes them money. It might, in short, spell the beginning of the end for the podcast. In less dire terms, it certainly wouldn't help podcast listenership to grow beyond a relatively small but enthusiastic group of people.
An alternative path might feature a new iOS 6 podcast app that is installed by default with iOS 6, forming the centerpiece of a new content strategy for Apple that combines free podcasts with paid audio. This is Elgan's speculation, and I think he's on to something. He essentially says that such a strategy could herald a new dawn for podcasts, in which Apple sets the stage to compete with Audible (by wrapping in Apple audiobooks with the podcast app and cutting ties with Amazon's competing Audible service); integrate podcasts and other audio content with car stereos employing Siri control (because that's where a lot of people listen to audio); and adopt the name 'iPodcasts' or 'iPodcast' to brand the new app (which, Elgan surmises, might give Apple more footing to go after companies profiting by using the word 'pod' in their products and services).
As it now stands, podcast enthusiasts (like me) mostly feel that Apple thinks little of podcasts. In iTunes terms, the podcast is one step up from the 'Radio' category. When was the last time you used that feature? It's a shame, because podcasts serve up consistently great and varied content. I currently subscribe to 41 podcasts. For years, I relied on iTunes for podcast content. And, for years, I've cursed at how poorly iTunes manages podcasts and fails at helping people discover great shows.
Recently, I switched from iTunes to so-called 'podcatcher' apps. I purchased iCatcher! and Downcast and tried each out for several weeks. I would recommend them both, really. They are solid apps. Having said that, I'm currently using Downcast as my podcatcher of choice because it's a bit more polished and syncs faster across devices via iCloud. What do podcatcher apps offer over iTunes? Well, syncing across devices for starters. I can stop listening to a podcast on my iPhone and pick up where I left off on my iPad. I can download podcasts (of any size) over 3G. I can manage my podcasts by playlist. I enjoy automatic, untethered podcast updating over WiFi. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Apple's podcast offerings pale in comparison.
If Apple does stake a claim on 'iPodcast' and rolls out a new app this Fall that consolidates both free podcast and paid spoken word content, it would surely be a good thing for the future of the podcast. Of course, it could also mean that apps like Downcast and iCatcher will soon be Sherlocked. And it could also mean that fewer and fewer podcasts would be free in the future, as this might give podcast producers an easy way to charge for episodes without creating stand-alone apps. Who knows. What I do sense is that, as a consumer and producer of podcasts and big fan of spoken word content, this medium is undervalued and underappreciated.