A Five-Point Response to Podcasting Future

Tod Maffin makes some great points in his Five-Point Roadmap to Podcasting’s Future, but overlooks many of the core features available to solve these problems in the broader market space. One of the dangers in labeling podcasting revolutionary, rather than recognizing its evolutionary nature, is missing the key components from existing technologies capable of making podcasting a smooth experience.

The entire concept of podcasting is built on existing technology: audio recording software tools date back far enough that a copy of Sound Forge used to fit on a single floppy disk; RSS and enclusures aren’t new, Adam Curry just found an additional way to make them useful; both iTunes and Windows Media Player provide a number of features designed to make audio transfer from desktop to device a fairly painless experience.

Looking beyond current implementations, several tools already offer direct solutions for many of Tod’s strategies. More tools offer smart hints about the direction the podcasting media guide software (aggregators) needs to go (what is an aggregated list of content, but the equivalent of an onscreen cable guide, after all).

Content is the one area technology cannot fix. Many talented people are already doing podcasts, there’s no doubt. What podcasting lacks is star power. Adam Curry and Eric Rice may be able to enthrall a few hundred or even a few thousand listeners. Neither has the reach of major players like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh (I use these examples purely as two of the most listened to personalities on the planet. Love or hate them, the numbers don’t lie).

Let’s face it, the market isn’t going to grow with a group of content publishers all talking about the technology they are using, any more than blogging is facilitated by continual speculating about the future of blogging. Below is my point-by-point of Tod’s analysis based on existing market options.
My strategy-by-strategy analysis of Tod’s thoughts as a function of the existing software market:

Strategy 1: Smarter Aggregators

The current batch of podcasting tools is ugly. The main window of most apps looks like it was pirated from an Excel spreadsheet with sorting turned off. Normal users don’t care what the content URL is, they just want to get the content. A good aggregator should work like the channel guide for cable. Podcasters should be reporting to a central server, so that the aggregator can suck down all available channels. The listener then flags programs in his app that he wants to subscribe to. The content is downloaded in the background. The channel guide concept is smart because it can easily be used to filter types of content I don’t want to subscribe to and tie into a community rating pool for recommending great podcasts.

Smarter aggregation goes beyond the tools to gather the data; the RSS feeds they gather on need to become more reliable. The current crop of podcasts don’t consistently publish the same data in each feed. RSS feeds themselves don’t follow consistent rules from one publishing tool to the next.

Quick-add: Yes, we need quick add. Quick add often doesn’t work well for traditional text RSS aggregation either. Going the route of always looking for a file named podcast.xml in the root directory might be easier to push than adding yet another protocol to the mix. Better still, if I’m at your site and find your podcast, I should be able to click a link which pops me to your entry in the aggregator’s channel guide (assuming you are already there).

Compression: Despite the ubiquity of the MP3 format, it simply isn’t as efficient as WMA or AAC at equivalent bit rates. The aggregator isn’t the point where we should be handling compression. It needs to happen at the server when the podcast file gets uploaded in the first place. A stop-gap for this (at least for Windows users) is to have Windows Media Player automatically re-compress files based on transfer to device settings in the player.

Enforcing a compression standard is not good for the content creators. My DSL connection makes it easy to grab as much as 15-16GB of video overnight. If a podcaster has the bandwidth to give everyone high quality audio, why not do it? It’s not like a 20-40GB hard disk portable player can’t handle the files. Perfect example: lets say I decide I want to start hosting a weekly jazz podcast. Jazz fans are barely likely to accept anything less than lossless quality. If my bandwidth can support a 30 minute broadcast that’s 100MB in size (which is too small to be lossless), why not let me? FLAC, AAC lossless, and WMA lossless all offer better compression with higher quality results; once again, the choke point in the compression equation is the MP3 standard, which is inferior to more recent developments.

Non-Audio Blogs: Tod, I can’t agree with you more. The ATT Natural Voices are awesome. I’ve used TextAloud combined with Natural Voices to successfully convert listenable 200 page books from text to speech. The Natural Voices also work with Mac OS X, I believe, and are far superior to anything available natively from MS or Apple.

To go beyond Tod’s feature requests in this area, I’ll repeat my preference for a cable guide-like interface. Aggregator developers, if you can make your software bypass iTunes or Windows Media Player altogether, you’ve got a winner. I should be able to subscribe and sync in an interface like Beyond TV or Windows Media Center. Take a look at the way Media Center 2005 handles NPR content. I should be able to plug in my device, whether it’s an iPod, Rio Karma, Dell DJ, or Pocket PC and do the sync from the comfort of my couch, just like programming a Tivo. Windows Media Player’s API supports this now. iPod users need to push on Apple to make this happen for your device.

I also want my own Popularity ratings. I want a system for rating particular podcasters based on my taste built into the aggregator. Ideally, it would adjust the sort order for podcasts based on my ratings. 5-star rated casts would appear first in the podcast playlist, followed by 4-star, etc. Again, this is an area where tying into existing player API’s should be fundamental. Both iTunes and Windows Media Player offer a rating feature. Microsoft exposes this feature to developers. 4 million iPod users need to beat on Apple’s door and make them do the same.

Strategy 2: A Publishing Tool

Publishers need a tool much simpler than Audacity. Ideally, the interface would offer VU meters and record controls at input (obviously audio geeks could continue with more sophisticated editors). When recording finishes, a wizard would step you through naming the file, adding significant descriptive information, outputting the audio to a server and automatically generating the enclosure in the RSS feed.

Auto-tagging: I basically covered this above, but it really needs to be transparent to the user. I shouldn’t need to know what ID3 is to be able to provide meta values for my audio file. One tag responsible podcasters need to include is a rating to warn about language and other potentially offensive content. For podcasting to succeed, listeners need to have their expectations met up front.

Enclosure help: Generating the enclosures and properly formatting the RSS feed needs to be easy for everyone. Hosting a file on one server and linking to it from another server should already work in virtually any of the tools that support enclosures now (I did it by hand-rolling a video feed with Channel 9 content from my own MT install). After all, a media file is just another link. Where enclosures need serious help is enforcing a set of publishing standards. Aggregators need to know the content type and they need to know the length of the file. Making this happen should be transparent to the content publisher.

Chapter Publishing: While this isn’t easy to do yet, it already exists for anyone with a device that supports playlists (most do). It’s up to the publisher to make it work, but all you really need is to create a playlist and carve the audio up into smaller pieces. On the device, you just skip to the next track in the playlist. This is essentially how DVD players work now. I’ll caveat this to say future portable devices need to natively support asf and other file types with embedded playlists (Pocket PCs already do this, I believe). This is really up to the content publisher to do a better job of marking content. A slight learning curve exists now, but is certainly far from insurmountable.

Strategy 3: Better Devices

While there are plenty of devices that suck and the features are often stripped from flash based players, the market is fairly solid in the specific areas of complaint suggested by Tod. Fundamentally, this may no longer matter once more SmartPhone devices hit the market. With an Audiovox SMT5600, an ATT data plan, and a miniSD card, you no longer need to interface with a PC or Mac to get on-demand audio on a portable player. The phone is the player. It supports playlists. It can even handle streaming content. Of course, the features Tod mentions are already in the wild on many portable media players.

Bookmarkable: iPods already support bookmarking and they adjust playback speed, which means you can listen faster to consume information more quickly. In most cases if you pause (instead of stop) you can easily comback to where you left off, if you forget to bookmark your place. Rio supports bookmarking in most of their devices (and has for longer than the iPod’s lifespan). Creative supports resume on most of its devices. Windows Media Player on Pocket PCs will patiently wait at whatever point you shifted your focus to another app before playing back the remainder of an audio track.

Chapter-Jumping: As I pointed out in the publishing section above, this is fundamental to the way publishers create their programming. By building it as a playlist, the inherent problems with needing to fast forward are resolved. It might require adding support for filetypes with embedded playlists like asf to some players, but there is little difference in implementation between a playlist and chapters in a DVD.

Strategy 4: Big Name Content

Podcasting has been touted as revolutionary because it gives everyone easy access to offer their voice to the world. Like blogging it should be as easy for someone with an audience of 10 to offer subscriptions as it is for someone with an audience of 20 million. Taking what Tod says a step further, with nods to the existing technologies providing this service:

A Big Name: To fully recognize mass adoption, the names need to be even bigger than public broadcasting. Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Al Franken each rub some segment of their audience the wrong way, but they all have star power to draw listeners to try any method available to get their content. A popular figure needs to endorse podcasting to gain mass adoption. Using a Creative Commons No Derivatives license would effective provide legal grounds to keep Rush or Stern haters from using their podcasts against them. NPR currently offers on-demand access to their content through the latest version of Windows Media Center and by way of Audible. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to have them offer content in other on demand ways like podcasting.

Show Me The Money: While it’s idealistic to pretend we don’t need a revenue model for podcasting to succeed, Tod’s right. Money needs to be made in the podcasting space, not for venture capitalists, but for the podcasters who build audiences based on what they have to say to have a motivation to continue. A pay-per-view model, or the monthly subscription feature found in Audible for NPR programming could easily be implemented to address this. How much would you pay to get your favorite radio program delivered to your desktop to listen on your schedule?

Strategy 5: A Self-Aware Community

For any community to succeed it needs to be self aware. Here again is an area where existing technologies could be used to advance the cause.

Ratings: Ratings will be fundamental to separating the wheat from the chaff in the audio content space, but as audio communities like MP3.com and GarageBand.com have demonstrated in the past, ratings start to become meaningless when they get polluted by ballot box stuffers and popular downloads often remain popular because they made the top 10, not because they are actually good. A rating system requires some careful planning to prevent pollution.

P2P Distribution: While p2p is one method for distributing podcasts, simply creating a service to host files and making aggregators smarter might help with the bandwidth problem. Proper implementation of RSS, aggregators that only grab new content, and a smart system for checking for new content would go a long way to making sure each listener only downloads a new podcast once. The thing I don’t like about p2p is that it doesn’t help people with a small pool of listeners. BitTorrent is most effective at distributing files that are in demand by many people. When the pool is too small, the brunt of the traffic will still be directed at the content publisher’s server. The odds of all 100 listeners to a show actively sharing and downloading at the same time is slight, especially in a world where sharing files has proven to increase chances for lawsuits. BitTorrent is still too half-baked for sharing content when you want to guarantee availability anyway. Seeds seem to go to sleep at random or just don’t properly connect to the tracker. The “tape trading” crowd might offer a solution if they would be willing to share FurtherNet. It works like BitTorrent but offers a much better UI and a more reliable transfer experience.

A third option here is Hosting Services. For about $350 per month, hosting is available at unlimited capacity below sustained transfer thresholds of 2 Mbps. While $350 isn’t affordable for the average guy broadcasting from his basement, it wouldn’t take very many small podcasters to put knock that down to a level anyone could afford. The limiting factor here is server space. At 30MB per show, podcasts quickly consume large amounts of server space. Assuming one show per week per podcaster, the space required to host one podcast is 1560MB or about 1.5GB. And that’s just the first year. So how much would you be willing to spend on hosting to guarantee availability of your podcast? $20/month? $50? This goes back to the revenue strategy of podcasting, because the overhead of audio and video is much higher than text.

Moving Forward

The platform is already available to make podcasting seamless. Instead of looking at it as a new technology with a complicated development curve, we need to look at how to make existing technologies work within the parameters of what we want to do. Microsoft has provided many of the puzzle pieces in an open API waiting for developers to interface. Apple would be smart to do the same. At the core, we need better content.