Podcasting and iTunes: Boon and bane

Now that I've removed myself from the Worldwide Developers Conference and its accompanying distortion field, I've bent my brain a little farther to what effect iTunes 4.9's podcasting feature may have on the world of podcasts. At this early stage of the game it looks both exciting and daunting.

Exciting

I'm enthusiastic about podcasting finally coming to the masses in an easily accessible form. If you've read enough of these little scrawlings of mine, you know that I use my mother as the "computing for everyone" litmus test. If a technology comes along that mom can put to good use without her calling me six times in a single weekend, it's ready for the world. iTunes' integration of podcasting appears to be just such a technology.

I'm just as tickled that this helps maintain the iTunes Music Store's lead in online music commerce. Offering free podcasts to The Store's customers is a great way to keep them coming back. It's also yet another way to promote the sales of iPods.

And having podcasts available from the iTunes Music Store is likely to encourage those mega-media holdouts who, up to this point, haven't embraced podcasting. This gives Big Media a big kick in the pants and can only lead to richer and more professionally produced content.

Daunting

In its current incarnation, podcasting is fairly wild-and-wooly--a bit like the Internet's early days. You can find the most amazing stuff being podcast these days--some great, some awful, and most somewhere in-between. I fear that when the iTunes Music Store becomes The Place to obtain podcasts, podcasts will become far more homogeneous in order to fit Apple' standards.

Let's face it, Apple can't (and won't) offer every podcast made. In its most benign form of filtering, it could exclude podcasts that don't meet particular standards of production. And surely a podcast's content will determine whether or not it makes the cut. For example, adult material will assuredly be barred. And how likely is it that the ravings of those on the religious and political fringes will be represented (we're talking black helicopters and tin-foil hats rather than Limbaugh and Franken here)?

I'm not suggesting that it's Apple's goal to silence society's more colorful voices, only that in this kind of broad commercialization of podcasts, some of the more interesting (if occasionally offensive) elements may be left behind due simply to market forces. Sure, these souls would remain free to post their work as they do now and interested listeners could obtain that work with podcast clients, but when a resource exists that's as easy to use as the iTunes Music Store, how assured is the future of such clients?

My greatest hope is that Apple will err on the side of the wild-and-wooly--label material some may find offensive as just that, and let their customers make the final call. Should this fail to happen, I'll keep an eye out for the Great Podcast Underground and pray that it finds traction among users interested in the exotic.

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Christopher Breen

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