How iTunes Took Podcasting Mainstream 13 Years Ago

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Bradley Chambers at 9to5Mac has a very interesting article today about podcasting that is well worth reading in full. While I have listened to a lot of tech and sports podcasts over the last 12 years, and still do today, I have to admit that I’ve never known much about the history of the medium. This article gives a great synopsis of the early days before I started paying attention to podcasts.

This article focuses mostly on how Steve Jobs and Apple’s decision to include Podcasts in iTunes 4.9 in 2005 set the stage for the growth of the format. It centralized selection, rankings, and user ratings in a way that the iPod’s growing user base fully understood. This was podcasting’s first exposure to the mainstream, and it was a major step toward what the medium has become.

According to the Pew Research numbers that are also included in this article, podcasting is still “becoming,” with a growing user base and increasing reach into the mainstream. Looking back, it is not at all surprising that Jobs had the vision to identify a trend and mainstream it early enough to get a controlling piece of mindshare. That instinct was one of his defining characteristics, and we can see the results of that with where podcasting today.

Of course, while iTunes 4.9 was the first step, the de-centralization that came with the iPhone and the App Store was probably an even bigger one. First we gained the ability to download podcasts without having to connect to a computer and sync with iTunes. Then we got third-party apps, which brought us useful features like direct streaming and seamless playlists. The more that the friction of finding, adding, and playing podcasts has been reduced, the more popular they have become.

It is interesting to see how Apple’s influence in podcasting has waxed and waned over the years. There was a time when they owned the medium pretty much outright. That time initially came and went, as public opinion of iTunes soured as it got more and more bloated and slow. Third-party apps became more and more popular, eventually forcing Apple to move Podcasts out of iTunes, and into their own stand-alone app. Of course, that app has also gone through its own growing pains over the years, from its fantastically skeuomorphic beginnings complete with a moving reel to reel on the main screen, to its current incarnation as a robust and stable default option for Apple users.

I personally use Overcast to listen to podcasts these days, and I used a collection of other third party apps before that. I only used Apple’s Podcasts app for a short time after it was refreshed a few years ago, but it just didn’t have all of the features that I had grown used to elsewhere. That said, I am quite interested to see how well the new Podcasts app for the Apple Watch works out. I may even go back to using the app part-time to get the benefit of direct syncing to my Watch. Who knows, maybe the complete mobilization of medium will turn out to be yet another big moment for podcasting when we look back in a few years.


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