Today podcasting goes mainstream. Apple has released iTunes 4.9, which now has integrated support (and an odd purple icon) for organizing, downloading, and syncing podcast streams. iTunes’ new podcasting preference panel allows you to control how often it should check the servers for your subscribed podcasts, what to download, how many to keep, and which to copy to your iPod. The new version is available via Software Update, as well as Apple’s site.
I think it’s fantastic that Apple has embraced the podcasting phenomenon. When I first started listening to podcasts, I never would have imagined that they would go as far as adding an entire directory to the iTunes Music Store. The best part about all of this is that all the content is totally free, and there’s plenty of it. While podcasts have generally been home-recorded audio, Apple has made several deals with providers such as ABC News and Disney to provide content. Podcasting is going to explode now that it’s in everyone’s hands and is even easier then the standard iTunes Music Store. I can’t wait to see what new podcasts crop up.
If you don’t like what you find on iTunes, you can always apply Apple’s podcast interface to your own feeds. Under the Advanced menu in iTunes, you can choose to subscribe to any podcast feed by pasting in the RSS feed address. While I haven’t looked hard for it in the directory, I was able to easily add Slashdot Review to iTunes with nary a hiccup. Another nice feature is the ability to mark podcasts as played or unplayed by control clicking on the podcast itself or the entire feed header. Also, iTunes creates a new Podcasts folder in your iTunes Music library folder, making it easy to browse through the audio files yourself if the need should arise. For importing, iTunes added a Podcast option to the AAC Encoder, which encodes audio at 64Kbps — plenty for voice.
For those interested in creating their own podcasts, Apple has several items to help you along the way. For starters, they’ve added a big “Publish a Podcast” button to iTunes, where you can share the address of a podcast feed for Apple’s consideration. While Apple is the gatekeeper for the podcast directory, I’m confident that just about any podcast can make the cut. Also available is a (command line!) Chapter Tool application for adding chapters, images, and web links to specific timecodes in the podcast, so that the iTunes and iPod Photos show related images during stream playback. A podcast audio file with chapters shows a new menu at the top of the iTunes interface with a list of chapters, bulleted by the images which go along with them. MPEG-4 AAC (.m4a) files are the only audio format to support this feature, as they are the only ones over which Apple has control of the inner workings. While ChapterTool is still a beta command line application, I’m sure we’ll see some graphical interfaces for it in no time. I remember listening to an Engadget podcast many months ago, and agreeing with Phil Torrone that there should be some way to sync images and timecodes — this is the solution. The tools aren’t yet ready for the average podcaster, but the solid groundwork is there, and people will pick up on it.
Free content, new tools, and most importantly, listeners are what’s going to take podcasts to a new and more publicly aware level. This is just the beginning!
Update: New iPods are available at a very nice price point (20 GB for $299), as well as an iPod Software Update to enable podcast support all around.
Update: Jon points out that iTunes will bookmark not only AAC podcasts, but iTunes-registered MP3 ones as well. Now you can start listening to a podcast on your Mac, pause it, sync your iPod, and keep listening from that point via your iPod — seamless integration as you move from one place to another.