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Hands On with Podcasts, Apple’s Newest App


One of the strangest things about the launch of the iOS 6 beta was the absence of native podcast playback. Traditionally a marquee Apple feature, the bundled Music application lost the podcast tab it had sported since its launch. Yesterday, Apple cleared up the confusion with the release of a stand alone podcast application for iOS.

The application, as you would expect, is fairly easy to use. Upon first launching Podcasts Apple automatically imports podcasts you already listen to, a nice touch more podcast apps should include. There’s a catalog button in the top left corner you can tap on to import and search for new podcasts, and a toggle to switch between audio and video feeds. The bottom of the application switches between synced feeds and Top Stations, an Apple curated list of the most popular shows. The list can be broken down by genre, and is fairly handy tool for finding new content.

Like much of iOS 6, Podcasts sports a refined interface that moves away from the somewhat dated grey and blue of iPhones past. The majority of the application is stately black, none of that nasty stiched leather or fake pool table stuff here, and dominated by large podcast art work. It’s a suprisingly refined look, and a breath of fresh air after grappling with the creeping skeumorphism of recent Apple software updates. The few graphical metaphors that draw upon physical objects, like the controls for playback speed, seem inspired by meatspace, not copied from it. It’s a subtle distinction, but it can be the difference between binary beauty and pixel induced nausea. The most annoying part of the interface was the catalog—it’s just a mirror of the old iTunes podcast section, and opening it served as a jarring reminder that the rest of iOS 5 doesn’t look this good.

Podcasts probably isn’t going to offer power users much they don’t already have in existing applications, like the ever wonderful Instacast. Aside from top stations, there’s nothing in Podcasts that hasn’t already been implemented in other podcatchers. In fact, moving to Podcasts could mean sacrificing valuable functionality and content. You lose the ability to import RSS or Atom feeds, which means you can only consume syndicated content Apple approves. If your tastes are a little more…. adventurous than Cupertino cares for you may not find Podcasts is for you.

Just as interesting as the app itself is the questions it raises. Up until now, podcasts have been an integral part of the iPhone and iPad operating system. Hell, without Apple integrating podcasts with iTunes and the iPod web syndicated audio and video may never have exploded in popularity like it has (sorry Zune fans, thems the breaks). But, Apple decided not to announce Podcasts on stage at WWDC with the rest of iOS 6, even though the app was launching later the same month. It’s no longer even clear that podcasts will be included in iOS. It could be that, like other Apple applications, Podcasts will simply be left in the App Store to sink or swim on its own. But that would cut core functionality from a mature operating system with millions of customers, something Apple would almost never want to do. But Apple continuing to install Podcasts by default raises its own set of questions— if Podcasts is being left in the OS, why the early release and late announcement? If Podcasts is part of the operating system, why not announce and launch it with the operating system? It’s not as if current podcast integration is broken, and users who need more robust functionality have been happy to buy third party programs. It’s weird, and a little confusing—hopefully we’ll see some clarification in the next few weeks.

Editor’s Note: Technical problems made it difficult to import the screenshots we took. All images are courtesy of ArsTechnica.