Rusty Split

Are we doomed to division while the foundation crumbles?

It’s been a terribly long time since I stopped in, but I haven’t gone away, just got rather busy. I’m still busy, but I’m itching to get more regular posts here. I continue to work in both radio and do podcasting, and continue to wonder where this new medium is going.

Sadly, from what I’ve seen in the last couple of years, very little has actually changed.  Here are a few notes about my impressions, and a note about the panel I’m going to be at in Atlanta at Dragon*Con.

Apple Goes Half-Way Again

When it comes to podcasting, Apple seems to suffer from Zeno’s (dichotomy) Paradox: each iteration seems to only get haflway to the goal, and never actually gets to its goal. The addition of “stations” within iTunes was very promising, and mirrored some of my own attempts at solutions to keeping a regular, automated stream of podcasts (using a multitude of smart playlists). However, the interface is confusing and counter-intuitive, and seems geared at having a very small number of podcast subscriptions which fit a particular distribution model. In particular, it tends to favour podcasts which are non-serialized (so you can listen to any episode without previously listening to the rest), that are ephemeral (because all options start with “don’t download until you demand” and “delete once you’ve consumed it”) and which regularly update.

Stations are a neat idea, but don’t really work very well in the current iteration. I’m going to revisit this topic later and try to give a more detailed examination, but I feel that it is based on a bad, limited and generally useless vision of podcast production and consumption.

In my case, setting up initial stations was seriously hampered by the inability to sort lists in any recognizeable manner (is alphabetical no longer a natural default sorting method?) and the clumsy way it displayed updates. Syncing podcasts to my phone, however, proved disastrous, reviving episodes I’d already listened to, adding all episodes to every podcast (even those I don’t sync) and generally just filling my phone with the wrong podcast episodes.

Divide and Conquer, or Lift and Separate

My solution was to separate my phone podcast listening entirely from my desktop podcast listening, which leads to more problems but solves the basic routine problems. Now, I listen to the stations I’ve established on the iPhone, and my podcast lists and everything else on iTunes goes untouched (and thus uncorrupting of my phone). This has a big drawback, as I’ve been forced to abandon my listening of some podcasts altogether for the moment. I simply can’t fit them all on the phone, and I’m listening to back episodes of fiction podcasts, so the most current episodes aren’t useful. Moreover, some of them I accumulate for later listening, and that has to be done in real-time as most RSS feeds are truncated for “helpful” reasons.

The Podcasts app has a few things to commend it, like being able to download individual episodes for offline viewing. I tend to download video podcasts when I’m on my home wifi, to be watched somewhere else, so that I don’t blow through my data plan. Granted, these downloads seem to come with several problems, including the fact that some videos just don’t ever work, for no reason that I can find, and that offline playback sometimes fails because of a lack of a network.

The main drawback to my new use of the Podcast app is that it no longer gives me much control over my podcast listening offline. I can tell it to auto-download episodes, but that will quickly fill my phone. I can download episodes on demand, but that kills my data plan. I used to use the smart playlists to manage my downloads, ensuring that my podcasts were always up to date, but I had to sync in order to get new episodes, which meant that trips away from my home desktop meant no syncing and thus no new episodes on-the-go.

Now that smart playlists are no longer a viable option (unless I entirely remove the Podcasts app and if the regular music app will still play podcasts), I’m in a big pickle. Stations with remote sync sounded like a great option, but “remote” turned out to be on the same network (or through the very limited iCloud interface, theoretically), and “sync” should really be spelled “sink”, as it inevitably messed it up.

I’ve worked on software which had to synchronize copies of its complex configuration non-centrally, when changes could be made in multiple entry points and a merger had to happen to keep things working. I made it work, with only a few caveats, and I understand its complicated. This feature in the iNiverse, however, seems to be a very buggy Alpha feature, as this kind of sync simply never works correctly. Furthermore, because the space on the phone is so severely limited when compared to the base iTunes installation, it inevitably failed due to lack of space.

This is atrocious, and must be fixed. More than another painfully bad half-step, a real design philosophy has to be employed. Apple has to re-think the problem fundamentally in order to solve it, rather than making terrible and random incremental steps. The problem isn’t simple, but the solutions presented so far are embarrassingly incapable.

Back To My Routes*

(*Yes, this pun is intentional.)

I’m a software designer by training and inclination. I don’t have a job currently in that field (being a full-time radio manager), but I’m rather itching to design something, and podcasting is near and dear to me. I’m hoping to find my way again with both (and this blog) by devoting some time each week to examining the problem, taking it apart and then trying to propose a solution. That’s the original impetus for this blog, and I’m simply getting too fed up with bad solutions to procrastinate any further. I’m hoping that others will participate, whether by highlighting issues I’ve missed, disagreeing with me or providing design snippets of their own. I feel passionately about this media, and I’m tired of seeing its potential destroyed or limited by bad software or simplistic public thinking.

Putting My Voice To The Problem

I don’t know if I’ll be podcasting as much here as I would have liked — I produce about 7-9 hours of radio every week, and I see the blog as more of a textual, visual, intellectual challenge more suited to writing than speaking — but I’m going to include some audio from time to time, if only to employ both my word skills and my vocal skills to the problem.

I volunteer on panels from time to time for the cause. I’ll be at Dragon*Con again this year (which I do for fun), and I’m scheduled to appear on a panel entitled: The Past, Present and Future of Podcasting. It’s part of the Podcasting track, and will be in the Hilton Room 203, Saturday, August 30 at 5pm. I’m looking forward mostly to the Present and Future part of that panel, but we’ll go down a bit of memory lane first before getting down to grind.

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