Future of Podcasts

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. 

On Apple

A few loosely-formed notes related to Apple's latest announcements:
  • The Retina Macbook Pro is lovely. I'm not planning on purchasing it, though. If I were going to get it, I'd spring for expensive upgrades (16 GB of RAM, largest hard drive), as I've read that there is apparently no way to upgrade this machine. I also have a more existential concern: if were to buy a Retina laptop, would I still be able to tolerate my crappy external monitor? 
  • The $20 upgrade fee to install Mountain Lion on all your Macs is a good deal. 
  • I'm lamenting the unmistakable signs that the desktop hierarchical file system is going the way of the floppy drive. App libraries are in, in which each app houses its own files and data, iOS style.  I suspect that, within the next iteration or two of OS X, the file system will join Console, Terminal, and Activity Monitor in the utility bin. And as with most Mac utilities, it probably won't be used by many. Still, as long as access to the file system remains, I'll be OK. 
  • Here's one thing that worries me about app libraries. A lot of people organize files on the Mac by topic, not by app. For example, I have documents (created with many different apps) that are related to my house that I've tagged and filed away in one place. How will a walled-in app library solution allow me to organize documents across apps? Maybe a tagging solution will be offered. And what of plain text files, which may be opened and manipulated by scores of iOS and desktop apps? That's the beauty of the flexibility of Dropbox text file storage. It's so very flexible.
  • Speaking of files, I love my PathFinder. And EagleFiler. And Launchbar. With every OS X release, my insecurity grows about the future of these and many other desktop apps. Imagine how the developers feel.
  • Every time I see more iOS features come to the desktop, I can't help but think, 'Winter is coming!'
  • Apple demos of new OS features are consistently drool-worthy and slick, but they need to help us users more in terms of follow-through. My point is that Apple could do a much better job in documenting how to use their apps and operating systems. Updates come fast and furious, but new features and usage scenarios are poorly documented.
  • I'm surprised that Apple has yet to offer a better password solution for logging in to web-based accounts across devices. Stated another way, I'm surprised that Apple hasn't yet Sherlocked 1Password. Couldn't you see Apple offering a password solution that syncs across your Mac(s) and devices via iCloud, but only works with Safari to encourage browser lock-in. Speaking of, does anyone know of a site that lists all third party apps that have been Sherlocked over the years?
  • Passbook looks promising. I hope it expands to include supermarkets, chain stores, and gas station membership bar codes. It's the 21st century. Why do I still need a Petco plastic dongle on my car keychain?
  • What of Dragon Dictate? Curious that I received a newsletter from Nuance for the first time in a long while on the day of the WWDC keynote offering a special discount to buy Dictate for Father's Day. And I received another similar email today. So I'm wondering if the new OS X dictation feature will obviate the need for Dragon Dictate ... or if this product will differentiate itself by offering a more robust voice-recognition package for Mac. I should note that I'm a happy Dragon Dictate user.
  • Facebook integration thoughts: blah. I'm not a fan.
  • Siri's new ability to open an app by name isn't enough. What if I don't remember the name of the app? This is a good step forward, but we need more and better ways to navigate our hundreds of iOS apps. By keyword, for example. Wouldn't it be nice to ask Siri to serve up all weather-related or board game apps?
  • The Mac Pro update was weak. Did you see that the Mac Pro had a little 'new' tag on it in the Apple Store on the day of the keynote? The next day, that notation disappeared ... no doubt because of the deluge of feedback from outraged power users who were expecting a real update. That won't come, apparently, until next year.
  • iTunes remains a bloated mess. 
  • When on Earth is the iWorks desktop suite going to be refreshed?
  • iOS, iTunes, iLife, iEverything. Am I the only one who is sick of the 'i' thing?  

Apple’s Last Mouse

I finally broke down and bought an Apple Magic Mouse a couple of weeks back to replace an aging Logitech MX Revolution. I'm happy with my new input device, but I suspect it will be the last Apple mouse I ever buy. That's because I'm convinced that this is Apple's final mouse.

When I first started using it, I thought of the mouse as a hybrid device that cleverly combines old and new input ideas. After using it for a while, I've started to think about it as a transitional device. The Magic Mouse isn't about the mouse at all. It's all about the Multi-Touch surface. 

My guess is that Apple will soon proclaim the mouse dead and drop it from their product line. Only the Magic Trackpad will remain for desktop computers. 

Is the Magic Trackpad a superior input device? Based on my experience using the Trackpad on my Macbook Pro, I'd say it's better for most tasks but not as good for tasks that require fine control. The Multi-Touch, finger-driven interface is great, but it would be even better to have a large Trackpad that could transform into a Wacom-style pen tablet device. Perhaps a gesture could toggle modes.  

Of course, even touch surfaces may someday be obviated by eye- and voice-controlled desktop computing. I can see how such future tech might work well for routine tasks, but I wager we'd still need some sort of physical input device for precision work (e.g., detailed selections, drawing). I bet that device will look a lot more like a Trackpad than a mouse. It could also look like an iPad running a Trackpad app.

How about Soundtrack Express?

 open public Beta of Adobe Audition for Mac. While Audition for Mac remains in Beta, anyone can download it for free to take it for a spin. It's worth a look if you're interested in advanced audio editing.

I'm planning to use it to produce the next episode of my podcast to see how it stacks up to Apple's Soundtrack Pro. In preliminary tests editing some audio files and piecing together a multitrack project, it seems to offer all of the tools and capabilities of the Apple audio editing program (at least for my needs).

I'm interested in Audition as an eventual replacement for Soundtrack Pro. As much as I like Soundtrack Pro, I don't like the fact that I can only get it as part of the Final Cut Studio suite. I don't really use the other Final Cut tools*, so I'm loathe to upgrade to the most-recent version of the Apple suite just to use the audio editing application. A bit of backstory: I own the first version of Final Cut Studio, which I purchased at a steep discount thanks to an Apple promotion for people who previously owned one of the stand-alone apps that make up the Suite.

This is not to say that I want to purchase the stand-alone version of Adobe Audition. That would likely cost more than the upgrade price for Final Cut Studio. Rather, I'm anticipating that I might pick it up as part of a suite when Adobe comes out with CS6, as I'm still using CS3. 

Here's the thing, though. Both Audition and Soundtrack Pro offer much more power than I really need.

However, these pro-level tools allow me to do things with audio that I just can't do with other tools. I've tried to make GarageBand work, but it's just too limited. I've tried Audacity, too, but it's just too hard to use when juggling six or seven tracks and scores of clips.  I keep going back to Soundtrack Pro. 

What I'd really love to see is an audio application from Apple that's akin to Final Cut Express. I want Soundtrack Express. It would offer less than Soundtrack Pro, but more than GarageBand. What do you say, Apple?

* I would gladly upgrade my copy of Final Cut Studio if the next version rolls in new capabilities to publish content for iOS devices.

Initial Thoughts of a New iPad 2 User

I've had an iPad 2 for four days and a Smart Cover for a day and a half. I'm not going to post a detailed review. There have been enough of those.  I will, though, share a few initial impressions as a first-time iPad owner.

First, the Smart Cover. It's remarkable. As remarkable as the iPad. That's no small achievement, and it deserves to win design awards. In case you missed the iFixit breakdown of this cover, it's worth your time to check out the magnetic gadgetry that makes this device work. It's easy to use. More, it's a pleasure to use. I love how the iPad instantly turns on when I open the cover. I love the ease with which I can stand my iPad up in two positions.

It doesn't really clean the glass surface, though. Apple claims that it 'brightens up your iPad.' That's true to an extent. But they also say it 'gently buffs off any smudges or fingerprints as you move, [so your] iPad always looks good on arrival.' That's not quite true. Certainly, the surface looks better than it would without the cover. But the gentle buffing is no substitute for wiping the glass screen with a microfiber cloth.  What I've found is that the cover—as I move it to and fro—gently removes oily smudges from the surfaces from the areas where the microfiber makes contact. But the microfiber only hits the glass in the ribs of the cover. Between the ribs, in the creases of the cover that allow it to be easily folded up, there is no contact. The oily residue remains in those spaces, appearing as Zebra strips of smudge over the glass surface. It's not a big deal, but it's worth noting that I still need to manually clean the surface.

Another minor annoyance I have with the cover is that it doesn't magnetically seal when flipped to the back of the device (when I'm using the iPad). It flops around a bit. I imagine that design constraints limit where magnets can be placed within the iPad, and these constraints account for the lack of a magnetic hold when the cover is flipped around to the back of the device. Still, it's not a big deal. It's easy to rip the cover off and toss it aside.

My final concern regarding the Smart Cover is that it doesn't protect the back of the device. I'm worried about scratching the aluminum. I'm not too worried, though. I trust that third-party vendors will soon offer stick-on protective coatings to address this issue. I'd rather go that route than plunge the iPad in a thick protective case. I don't want the device to be any thicker than it is. I want to hold the thin aluminum back in my hand when I use it. It's an important part of the tactile experience.

The last thing I have to say about the cover concerns material. I expected that the appearance of the leather model would shame that of the cheaper Polyurethane skin, but found that both models look very nice. In 5by5's 'The Talk Show' podcast, Dan Benjamin described the surface of the cheaper model akin to the 'Trapper Keeper' plastic those of us of a certain age will surely recall from childhood. It's kind of like that, but it's really much nicer to behold. It's nice enough that I went with a neutral grey polyurethane model and saved some money. I think it looks great.

As for the iPad 2 itself, I should note that I spent 10 minutes trying out a Motorola Xoom at my local Costco a week ago. This device is, as far as I know, the current 'best of breed' alternative. I thought the Xoom was competent, but it felt choppy and clumsy to the touch. A bit half baked. Now that I have spent considerable time on an iPad 2, I can you assure you that there is no comparison. It's a device that's living up to my childhood expectations of what 21st century tech might be. 

Is the iPad 2 perfect? No. There's plenty of room to improve. Is it the best mobile device I've ever used? Yes. Interestingly, a minor change made it more so. Based on a tip I read on TUAW, I upgraded to XCode 4, which allowed me to enable some new multi-gesture devices for the device. These gestures enable rotation through open apps with a gesture, a swipe to see all background apps, and a swipe to get back to the Home screen.

These seem like minor improvements, but they are not. They make a huge difference in ease of use, akin to how the Smart Cover makes a huge difference by waking up the device when you flip it open. That tiny convenience of auto-waking the device with the Cover vice having to press the 'Home' button makes the iPad that much easier to use. Likewise, these few extra gestures make navigating scores of apps that much more seamless and enjoyable.  I hope to see these additional gestures in the next iOS release. As for the fears that these features hint that the Home button is destined for the trash bin, who can say? I don't really care. I prefer to avoid using the Home button if possible.

My final note concerns the lack of software keyboard support for Dvorak. The lack of the Dvorak layout on my iPhone is no big deal. The screen is too small to accommodate full-handed typing. Not so on the iPad. I suspect I speak for Dvorak-typing Apple enthusiasts everywhere when I say that a software layout option is very important. Without it, we're reduced to hunt-and-peck typing on the iPad screen using an unfamiliar keyboard layout, or we're forced to buy an external keyboard to use iOS hardware Dvorak support. Attention Apple: this is a very simple fix.

Adobe launches free online image editor

learned that Adobe launched a public beta of Express yesterday. It’s an online photo editing application with a couple of free Gigabytes of storage. It was first demonstrated last September.

It’s pretty slick. It’ll be interesting to see how Picnik, Splashup, Snipshot, Phixr, Preloadr, and Pixenate (among other competitors in this crowded field) fare in light of this gorilla-sized competition.

I think Apple should enter the fray. I would think it would be a short leap from iPhoto and .Mac to a great web-based editing and storage solution from Cupertino. I’m guessing they wouldn’t want to make it Flash-based, though.

More thoughts on my 16GB iPod Touch

I recently read an article about potential future growth in the iPod market centered around the Wi-Fi mobile platform introduced with the iPod Touch. Now that I have experienced Wi-Fi access in this great little handheld device, I could never go back. This is surely the future of handhelds.

I’m on week three with my new Touch, and I have to say I love it. The addition of the Mail, Notes, Maps, and Safari browser is fantastic. It’s utterly transformed how I use my iPod. I can’t wait to see what the independent Mac software community comes up with to make this even a better device once Apple releases the software development kit later this month.

However, there is one thing that really bugs me about my new iPod: the lack of tactile controls to play, pause, and change songs. With my old 3G iPod, I could plug it into my car stereo and change songs on the fly without looking at it. This isn’t possible now, and I’m told the iPod remote (with the built-in FM transmitter) doesn’t work with the Touch.

I’ve read that the iPod Nano Remote Control will work with the iPod Touch, but I mail-ordered a similar low-end remote before for my old iPod and it was cheap and flimsy. In fact, I ended up sending it back because it failed within a week. I need a good remote!

Now, following Apple’s announcement today, there is one more thing that bugs me about my Touch. I patiently waited for Macworld before I bought my iPod Touch explicitly to ensure Apple wasn’t about to launch an updated version with more memory. I have over 20GB of music alone. Alas, they didn’t announce anything new for the iPod line during the Expo, so I happily bought a 16GB model … confident that the next iPod Touch update would be far in the future (or at least several months away).

Now, less than three weeks after I buy my 16GB model, they announce a 32GB version for $100 more. Apple is surely aware that many people wait for Macworld before plunking down money on a new piece of Mac gear. Couldn’t they have announced this a few weeks ago during their biggest consumer show of the year? Perhaps this was a tactic to reduce their 8 and 16GB reserves. Geez. I could really use that extra space. Anyone want to buy a slightly used 16GB iPod Touch?

On the iPod Touch

I’ve been using Omnigroup’s OmniFocus for several weeks now to prepare for my evaluation of this task management application (part of a series). It’s quite an impressive tool. I’m ready to put my thoughts together — look for it by the end of the weekend. Meanwhile, I want to comment on the iPod Touch.

I’m going to retire my battle-worn third generation iPod this weekend. Now that the iPod Touch offers much of the same functionality as the iPhone, I’m ready to ugrade. You might wonder why I’m not going to spring for the iPhone. The main reason is cost — not the cost of the iPhone, but the cost of the AT&T service plan. The cheapest plan equates to over $700 per year. Since I don’t talk on the phone that much (and my current employer provides me with a cell phone), I’ve decided the Touch is my best bet.

The only thing I think I’ll miss is the iPhone’s ability to surf the web and check email via the AT&T EDGE network when one is not near a WiFi source. But I’m confident that WiFi access points will continue to proliferate to a degree that will make it easier and easier to connect wherever I am. If I can’t connect in some locations, no big deal. I don’t really want to be connected in all places at all times anyway! When I’m on a business trip, however, it will be a particularly nice feature to be able to browse the web, get directions, and check my mail from my hotel room or at a nearby coffee shop.

The Infamous $20 Fee

Some iPod Touch owners are expressing outrage at Apple's decision to charge $20 for a major software upgrade of the device. This upgrade, announced this week at the Macworld Expo, adds five applications (mail, notes, maps, weather, stocks) to the iPod Touch — features that have been on the iPhone from the start. For those who buy a new iPod Touch as of last Tuesday, the additional apps will be included for free.

I have mixed feelings about this. I can understand why some early adopters feel like they are getting ripped off and, in effect, penalized just for being early adopters. However, early adopters bought the Touch with full knowledge that it did not have all the software features of the iPhone. Apple never said that these features would eventually be added, although many hoped for this.

It’s not surprising that Apple opted to charge a nominal fee. The real question, I think, is if $20 is “nominal”. I’ve read that a fee of some sort is legally necessary because of the Sarbannes-Oxley Act. This Act apparently states that you can’t add new features to something that you offer at a one-time fee without charging for the additional features. The iPhone is exempt from this because users pay running fees per month for this device. But what about the Apple TV? You don’t need to pay a monthly fee for this appliance, right? Yet Apple rolled out a major software upgrade for this at Macworld as well…and they’re offering it free to all, including existing Apple TV owners. Apple should better explain their rationale for the fee decisions they have made.

Still, I think it’s not that bad of a thing. If you buy a new Mac, you get Leopard and the latest version of iLife pre-installed. But if you already owned an iMac when these updates shipped, you have to buy these upgrades. I don’t see much of a difference between this and the situation with the iPod Touch. I suppose that’s easy for me to say since I’m going to get these additional apps for free.

So the question really comes down to this: why $20? Why not $5 (or whatever the minimum is to meet business/legal requirements). Twenty dollars seems a bit inflated. One thing is clear: this is a black eye for Apple. They have not offered a clear explanation to justify the upgrade cost for the iPod Touch, so people are drawing their own conclusions and forming unfavorable opinions. The impression Apple is leaving is that they may be getting a tad greedy…and they don’t care much about early adopters (faithful consumers that Apple should want to take care of very well).

Perhaps all the bad press will lead Apple to offer a discount of some sort to those who must pay this fee, as they did for the early adopters who bought the first iPhones only to see the price of the phone drop a whopping two hundred dollars just a few weeks later. Or perhaps they will simply ignore the grumbling of a few iPod Touch owners and press on.

As Apple’s market share continues to expand, I hope they don’t lose sight of what makes them special. I’d hate to see them become more like, er, that other company that sells PC operating systems.