Monday, July 11, 2005

Podcasting Redux

Podcasting continues to be a beloved trend of the plugged-in elite. I've commented rather dismissively about it before. Since then I've spent more time checking out the various podcasting options--both software and content. Have I revised my opinion? Not really, I still think that there are some fundamental reasons why podcasting won't have the impact of text-based RSS. Which is not to say that podcasting doesn't have merits within a limited scope.

Chris Anderson at The Long Tail gives three reasons why podcasts aren't a big deal (yet).
  1. They don't have internal permalinks to section and subjects, so they don't get much link-love.

  2. They aren't searchable. How hard would it be for some service to run podcasts through a quick-n-dirty voice recognition program to autogenerate transcripts? They don't need to be exactly right; 80% accurate search is better than the 0% we've got now.

  3. They're meant to be consumed linearly, and pretty much at the (agonizingly slow and amateurish) pace they were created. Who, aside from trapped commuters, has time for that?

These comport with my impressions, but it's the linear consumption that's the real killer. David Winer, who wrote the RSS 2.0 specification, described the web as a "skimming" medium on this Steve Gillmor podcast and you can't really skim audio feeds effectively. As a result, you end up selecting a few favorite programs that you might listen to during audio-friendly periods--which is to say, typically driving in the car. And, guess what, as professional broadcasters like the BBC start putting content on the air, (e.g. "In Our Time") many--probably most--people will largely devote their limited audio-listen minutes to professionally-produced broadcasts. Call this podcasting if you like, but it's really just on demand radio as you can record more crudely today with software like Replay Radio. (By the way, NPR, get with the program!)

So when are podcasts good? I can think of a few things, both based on my personal experiences and things I've read about.

Business uses--for example, a weekly "broadcast" to a sales force. This is sort of a special case of the "content to listen to while commuting/driving.
Certainly, interesting interviews with the sort of specialists which don't make it onto mainstream broadcasts in any depth are interesting. Steve Gillmore and Dan Bricklin's podcasts are good examples of this. Talks at conferences are another good example--as at IT Conversations.

Thus, I certainly don't argue that podcasting is "bad" or useless. I like on demand listening and RSS syndication provides a handy mechanism to more easily (if hardly automagically) get updated audio content from favored sources to my car. But I'll continue to argue that it remains a largely peripheral trend rather than the "end of radio."
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