The Digital Storm

The internet boom may be over, but internet technology continues to evolve at speeds once defined as internet time. That means that webmasters and online publishers need to stay on top of the latest trends if they want to avoid appearing hopelessly behind the times. Blogs are a good example. Although blogging has only emerged as part of mainstream media during the last two or three years, blogs are just about as old as the web itself. Today media sites, publishers, early adapters and bloggers who want to enhance their weblogs are speaking a new jargon - it's called Podcasting.

Adam Curry, the Globetrotting radio DJ, internet entrepreneur, and 1980s MTV VJ, created podcasting almost single handedly when he wrote the iPodder application. Like many before him, Curry had noticed that multimedia on the net generally meant click and wait, so he put on his thinking cap and created a simple program that allowed a user to 'subscribe' to MP3 audio files that were available via RSS syndication, then automatically visit the site and download them to the computer. Now the user could click when the media was ready. But by going one step farther and enabling the program to send the MP3 files to his iPod, he was able to listen to the MP3s anytime, anywhere. A revolution was born.

So what's the hype about? At its best, podcasting is about 'time-shifting'. In other words, if you can't be close to a radio when your favorite show is broadcast, with podcasting you can copy that show to your iPod and listen to it whenever and wherever you want. But at its worst, podcasting can mean bad home-brewed radio. In between you have a myriad of possibilities.

Because podcasting is based on a subscription model, it allows you to automatically select programs of interest to you and receive them on your hard disk whenever new editions are available. Once the files have been downloaded by your 'aggregator' (a program like the iPodder), you can transfer them to your MP3 player or just listen to them on your computer using an MP3 player like Windows Media Player or Winamp.

Although the first version of iPodder was introduced less than nine months ago, there are already over 5,000 podcasts available on the web. Selections range from radio programs, to news briefs, to audio books and any imaginable type of audio broadcast.

In fact, the promise of Podcasting is that it liberates media from the constraints of the physical world and in doing so promotes its democratization . There are only 24 hours in a day, and only so many radio frequencies that can be used for broadcasting, so the radio shows that get made and broadcast are the shows that will find the biggest audiences. With podcasting, the constraints of time and the airwaves are removed, meaning more shows can be broadcast and, equally importantly, these shows can be heard by anyone, anywhere. Because, unlike radio, the internet has no geographical limitations.

The situation is similar to that of the printing press. Before the Gutenberg press was invented books were mostly copied by hand, so only the books that were considered the most valuable would be made. It might have taken a monk a year to copy a bible, but with a printing press hundreds of copies could be made in a year. That not only meant that a more diverse selection of books could be made, but also that more people could read them.

The end result is that podcasting allows anybody to broadcast anything. Shows that would never get airplay on any radio station can be podcast for just a little more effort than it takes to update a blog.

For the moment, the most popular podcasts seem to be techie newsbriefs. The Slashdot Review is a ten minute summary of recent technology news from the popular website slashdot.org and Adam Curry's own Daily Source Code covers the latest technical trends. But new radio shows are coming online every month and film and dvd reviews are also popular topics. In the future, we can expect many independent shows of all sorts to begin popping up with increasing frequency.

Of course podcasting will need some sort of directory to point to the latest shows. Ipodder.org fills this role for the moment. Reminiscent of Yahoo.com circa 1995, this site defends its no frills approach by calling itself a resource that other directory sites can farm for content. Podcasts are grouped into several dozen different categories. Clicking on a title produces the XML code needed to subscribe to the podcast. But there are no program summaries, ratings, or any other type of evaluation.

If you're looking for a more polished presentation, check out www.podcastalley.com. This for-profit podcast directory hosts fifteen categories listing a wide range of shows. Not surprisingly, the biggest categories are 'Music/Radio' and 'Technology'. 'Video Podcasts' is one of the smallest, but maybe the most promising as well.

Video? That's right, podcasting can also automatically download videos to your desktop. Because of the much larger size of video files as compared to audio files, the concept of video delivered to your desktop really begins to make sense. Video podcasting may help fuel sales of the next generation of video capable portable media players from companies like Archos, Creative, and iRiver.

Although audio podcasting is enjoying rapid growth and acceptance, not least because of the iPod connection, video podcasting presents a solution to a real problem. The fabled information superhighway that would allow thousands of channels of television has not materialized yet, partly due to the problem of 'click and wait' and the long download times for big video files. With podcasting that problem is resolved and the door opens for podcasts of everything from NBC Nightly News to personal shows like the old AmandaCam.

Right now podcasting is free everywhere. But it may have a vast commercial potential. Historically, the biggest problem with internet media sales has been that the media needs to be listened to or watched on the computer. But Apple's iTunes has shown that media that you can buy and take anywhere with you is a highly desirable product. Websites like audible.org already offer downloadable MP3 versions of daily radio shows, so it's only a matter of time before the e-commerce component to podcasting is worked out and those daily radio shows that you subscribed to will automatically appear in your iPod every morning when you plug it into your computer.

It's not so often that we get a chance to witness the start of a revolution, but with podcasting riding on the shoulders of the blog and offering so much more promise, this may be one of those times.

August 2004: Adam Curry releases the first version of Ipodder
October 2004: The BBC releases its 'In Our Time' radio show via podcast
March 9, 2005: Virgin Radio offers a podcast of its daily breakfast show
March 24, 2005: Scott Sigler releases 'EarthCore', the first podcast-only novel
April 14, 2005: The BBC announces that it will podcast 20 more shows.
April 17, 2005: ipodder.org tracks its 5,000th podcast

On the Web:
Adam Curry homepage: www.curry.com
PodCast alley: www.podcastalley.com
Ipodder: www.ipodder.org
Earthcore: www.scottsigler.net/earthcore