iTunes as a Podcast Manager: It's time for an intervention (2nd version)
By Eddie LopezEddie_Lopez. Friday, October 27, 2006 4:29:02 AM
iTunes applies a blanket approach to podcast subscriptions that assumes they are all “consumed” in the same manner; it’s a music manager first that has been adopted for podcasts. It should instead embrace the many ways that audio is being published and subscribed to. One suggestion would be to move the concept of playlists over to podcasts and allow us to set download/sync options on playlists instead of each individual podcast. I'd *love* to hear suggestions of any software you know of that might meet my goals (Songbird, ODEO, Juice,ziePod, etc...)
This article is about an older version of iTunes. Many of the problems listed here have been addressed, maybe not as well as I'd like, but they're slowly working on it.
This is a rehash/revisit of an earlier article. I've just refined some thoughts a bit and incorporated some ideas from people who have posted and emailed me in response to the last article. If you read the old one, you can probably skip this. Also please note this has little to do with the iPod, or iTunes as a music manager. I love them!
But when it comes to podcasts, I'd like to see iTunes change. I *am* looking at other clients/managers that might work for me, but I want iTunes to go into rehab & get itself straightened up. Figure out what direction it wants to go in life and all that.
Mainstream Podcasts: The dawn of a new era… (how’s that for a setup that’s ultimately going to let you down?)
...for me at least. iTunes and the iPod has been an unbeatable feature set that's always been great for managing my mediocre music library due to the "whole product experience." The simplicity of the interface has long been a bastion of emotional and user centered design that I've happily been using for some time now, but now my requirements have changed. This interface for which I've manned the ramparts long after my will for music had been beaten and broken by what has become a year long siege from the invading hordes of podcasts, radio shows and other feed based audio programs that have stormed their way into my daily life, casting my music playlists to the fartheset reaches of my iPod. Genghis Khan has mounted an audio/RSS assault onto my unsuspecting music library and is enjoying a golden age of rotation into my morning commute (okay okay.. I'll stop). Of course, there is still the occasional rebellious resurgence from some musical favorites of mine that just never get old, but the podcast reigns supreme for me. In this last year, my use ('use' not 'disk space') has gone from all music to all podcasts. Where is a user like me to go?
Different Expecations: EW&F vs. PK&J
Podcasts and music just happen to be audio tracks that are sometimes the same format...and you listen to both with an audio device of some sort. There's not much difference apart from how you download them, but from a user standpoint there is. You shop for one and subscribe to the other. Pink Floyd's "The Wall" is a treasured member of your library , while the New York Times’ will go out with tomorrow's trash. Just because you've taken these goals "on the go" doesn't mean they've changed all that much. Music is still enjoyed, news is still consumed. iTunes understands this well enough.... maybe too well.
It's my opinion that podcasts are worthy of more than what iTunes can currently offer from the search via iTunes Music Store all the way down to the actual listening. Strangely enough, this is largely because they've taken the great ideas they have in regards to large library management and stripped them out for the podcast side of the house, presumably because most people don't have large libraries of podcasts. But in their haste to simplify the interface, they stripped out too much and put in too little resulting in a "makeshift" feel. You shouldn't just tweak and tune, fix and adjust your old way of thinking and expect it to work for a different needs because the technology is similar. They may work similarly behind the scenes but have different goals and user expectations. The stovepiped, restricted podcast interface has a hard time meeting the goals of anyone using it for more than a handful of feeds. If you are well versed in the ways of the cast, you'll have likely thought about the follow things at some point:
- Not all podcasts are created equal: You undoubtedly have favorites, and since there’s only so much time in the day, they usually get priority. You'll listen to the same handful of podcasts on a regular basis on a regular schedule, but there are times (like a long plane trip, or when your favorite podcaster is on vacation...) when you want to get some of your more fringe podcasts queued up. iTunes does not allow you to do this. In fact, if you let something fall off the radar for too long, iTunes starts ignoring it until you tell it that you want to start up again. I understand *why* this is done, but it probably wouldn’t be necessary if it was designed properly in the first place.
- Timeliness- A podcast now is useless later: The New York Times’ “Headlines” is a quick few minutes long podcast that I like to listen to as I’m getting ready to start the day. If I miss it though, that's fine, just forget about it and give me todays. Who wants old headlines?
..but some are timeless: My "Learn French by Podcast" courses I'm taking when I've got a lull or a casual interest. Those I'll listen to at any time... when/if I get around to them. UC Berkley college lectures are the same way.
- Wait! I’m not done (while set to only sync unplayed podcasts): If there's only 10 seconds left on a 45 minute podcast, it's safe to say I've listened to it. But if there's one second gone, why do you mark it played? The *single* reason my battery ever gets close to dying is because I'm 10 minutes into a 45 minute podcast and I don't want to put it back on the dock. I shouldn't be hesitant about using your product! But there's no "keep/save" function on the iPod...and iTunes, in its infinite wisdom, will not let you do *ANYTHING* to the iPod before it's been docked. I have my set to autosync (who doesn't?)...so as soon as I drop my iPod into the dock, it starts syncing away and removes my played episode. I would probably be happy if I had the ability to mark an episode as "unplayed" from the iPod interface instead of just iTunes... Of course, this brings up a sub-issue that doing so would reset my podcast to the beginning and I have to fast forward back to where I was.
- One schedule to rule them all: No podcast is published on the same schedule, so why does my podcast manager insist on imposing it across all my podcasts? Further still, some podcasts are broken up into chunks every day... so whereas one podcast is published once a week, another may be published 4 times a day.
“Now wait a second!”
Here's where you think: "but you can address all that in iTunes!" Yes, but not all at the same time. For most people this is fine, I realize that. It's simple and easy to figure out....simplicity is key. But for those with more..ummm...robust requirements it's not. We're limited to:
The X most recent episodes: Nice...except X is different for every podcast. X=5 will get me probably a good month worth of David Pogue's columns, but only a day of Armstrong & Getty (4 published per day!), or 5 days worth of RocketBoom or... well, you get the picture.
- The unplayed episodes: This is perfect (and my current setup) in most cases, except for any long podcast that I want to break up into different sessions. Also this is bad for things I'd like to listen to more than once. The French lessons would fall into this category. Thankfully, iTunes 7 no longer lets them build up by providing an “X unplayed” option.
- Only most recent episode: This is great for the New York Times headline podcast. I just want the last/latest one. I don't care about yesterdays headlines at all. Armstrong and Getty push four downloads a day, so I can't use just that.
- All episodes: Perfect for my French/Spanish lessons, anything I want to keep around for awhile, but worthless for everything else.
- Manually update and sync my podcast (including the 'updated checked' option). Fine... but that sounds pretty labor intensive. If I only had a podcast manager that would do that for me! It's not really that complicated.
So if you have differing goals like I've noted above, you've found these options don't work well for you.
“All this complaining!…so what’s your solution (smart||dumb) guy?”
Really…just a realization that what's good for the goose is not always good for the gander. The blanket approach is wrong for all the reasons above. A podcast manager should have all subscriptions follow a "base rule" similar to what exists, but allow us to configure each podcast. At the very least, it should let us categorize or prioritize or rank it somehow and have that dictate how and when podcasts are downloaded and sync'd…
As I've alluded to, there are some things that actually would be nice to adapt from the music player side of the house- like playlists! It would save a bit of navigation for us all for our favorite feeds. Combine that with what I just said in the paragraph above, and you’ve got a good start: Allow playlists and allow them to have different download characteristics (while were at it, how about enabling the "next" on podcasts Apple?)
So, I have a podcast “library” like do with songs. This is where I set my default sync option. For example, you would set this root level to “only checked” or something like that. Then you could create a playlist called “favorite daily feeds” (or something shorter) where you have it set to sync all feeds all the time. Then you could have another folder so that any feeds in it will just get the most recent episode, and so on and so forth. Of course, a feed could be listed in both the same way smart playlists currently work for music.
Another suggestion would be to allow us a “save” option on our iPod that will work in tune with the unplayed marker/sync options. I like the PK & J show, but when they get to the listener phone call segment, I move on. There’s still plenty of audio left, but I’m done with it. It’s fine that I’m only 2/3rds of the way done. Other shows I’d like to listen in whole. And even those still don’t make it the end of the track. They have bumper music or some closing audio or music from some local band that I'm likely to skip. So build your "played" marker with those kinds of details in mind. Maybe offer a “save” flag instead. It would be similar to marking the podcast as unplayed, but without the annoying side effect of resetting your file marker to the beginning. Oh, and for the love of pete, allow us to do this from the iPod, preferably the way we’d add music to a dynamic playlist- but if that’s too confusing for users, maybe add an option similar to the “rate” function for music, but instead of stars, you toggle the save on/off.
“Talk about your vocal minority…”
Maybe, (….really?) but I'm not the only one that likes to mix it up with podcasts. As more and more podcasts get pushed out, it's going to be harder to apply one or two rules to all of them. Not to mention that someone should be making a podcast client/manager that really focuses on what the user *wants* and what the goals are. Ok- so I listen to a lot of podcasts. But an interface that was built around the ideas I’ve outlined here would likely be more user centered.
I still think that if iTunes is going to include podcasts, the simple/limited approach is not the way to go. But I’ve said my piece, and I’ll leave it at that. I'm looking towards greener pastures, but I'm not hopeful I will find a replacement. Frankly, I hope not. If I did, I'd feel silly for spending this much time writing these thoughts out. Plus, I don't really want to have to sift through all these clients and managers to find the right fit. I'll try Juice, ziePod and a handful of others... although from the screenshots and FAQs, they don't appear to address any of these issues, and might be worse since I'd lose the tight integration of iTunes, music, my dock, and my updating... ie, the whole product experience which is what has kept me using iTunes in spite of the fact that it doesn’t do everything I want. But maybe it's time to surrender the guidon to the Golden Horde and look for a better fit -I hear no reinforcements marching from Cupertino.
iTunes- it's time for an intervention. (...tie up the 'rehab' loose end while we're at it)