Podcasts in iTunes... a step forward. But not a big enough step.

I blogged about Podcasts last year and came to the conclusion then that there was a lot of hype around podcasting, much of it overblown, but that we’d eventually see it settle down and some real value emerge. 

Since then, I think I’ve been both right and wrong. 

I’ve been right in that I’ve seen some real value emerge from podcasting. I now regularly listen to a number of podcasts while I commute. There is some very compelling audio content out there.

I’ve been wrong in that the hype has yet to settle down… and yesterday’s release of iTunes 4.9 with podcasting support won’t do anything to help quell the noise. 

With this release, you can now browse through various podcasts in the iTunes Music Store (all free, for now) and subscribe to those that interest you. You can  tell iTunes to automatically download the subscribed podcasts into the iTunes library, where they will be synced with your iPod. The iPod also has an available software update, which provides bookmarking support for the podcasts you download (meaning you can switch to something else and later pick up where you left off).

I’ve downloaded both the 4.9 iTunes update, as well as the iPod update and here are a few thoughts. First, the good:

  • First, the interface for browsing podcasts in the iTunes store is very nice. Subscribing is easy and it wasn’t difficult at all to set things up to automatically fetch podcast files.

  • Second, I really like that downloaded podcasts will be bookmarkable in the iPod.

  • I also think that this will be a great way to get those who are new to podcasting introduced to all the great content. Since it’s so easy to browse, subscribe, download, and sync, (oh and it’s free), the barrier to entry is much lower than in the past. 
  • By having podcast support in iTunes, I may not have to explain “podcast” to friends and family as much.

  • The installs for both the iTunes update and the iPod software update both went without a hitch.

Now the not so good… and to be fair, my main gripe with iTunes as a podcasting client is the same as with every other client I’ve tried — an incomplete set of features.

My ideal podcast client would le me subscribe to feeds and configure them on an individual basis. I want to configure the genre, artist, and album tags in the downloaded files — per feed. I want to specify exactly where downloaded audio goes and the naming convention used for those files — per feed. I want BitTorrent support built in for feeds that provide that option. I want to be able to specify the update/download schedule the client uses to check for new files and download them when they’re available — per feed. I want to be able to specify the iTunes playlist(s) that downloaded files appear in — per feed.

So while I think iTunes is a decent client, especially for those new to podcasting, it’s far from perfect. The biggest one is being able to specify the genre, artist, and album tags. Podcast providers are all over the map with how they fill out metadata tags in the audio files… if they fill it out at all, it often varies from one show to the next. And because the iPod’s navigation centers around this metadata, I have to update things myself if I want them to be organized correctly.

The other issue I’ve run into is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to take podcast files that are already in your library and tell iTunes to treat them as podcasts. I’ve got a bunch of old episodes from some of my subscribed feeds and I work my way through them when I’m doing yard work, errands around town, etc. And while I’m OK with subscribing to all of my podcasts in iTunes going forward, I’d really like to NOT have to re-download all of those files just so that iTunes/iPod recognize them as podcasts.

In typical fashion when a major announcement is made around an RSS-enabled product, there’s some drama and much discussion. This time, it’s centered around the tweaks they’re using inside of RSS to support the appearance of a podcast in iTunes, the “chapters” feature in enhanced podcasts, etc. But that’s to be expected and hopefully Apple does the right thing and evolves those extensions to something more straightforward down the road. In the meantime, it sounds like podcasters may have to jump through some hoops to get their content to appear correctly in the iTunes directory.

So overall, it’s not a bad release. If you have an iPod and have  never checked out podcasts before, you’re set. If you’re already using a podcast client and have your own process for fetching/syncing, you may want to keep doing what you’re doing.