The Geek: Podcast your eyes on the future of sound

People have been recording content, principally audio, for their blogs since 2001. The phenomenon gathered steam in 2003, once a simple way to contain the audio in the "RSS feed" of a website (which lets you monitor it without having to visit the site) was worked out.

Thus was born "podcasting"- because it was sort of like broadcasting, and because if you had an iPod or another digital music player you could copy the file to that. Lots of people offer podcasts via their blogs. The problem is finding a way to keep up with them.

Last week, Apple released an update to its iTunes music jukebox software (apple.com/itunes) which makes it a breeze to find and "subscribe" to podcasts. It's far from the first programme to let you do so; there's a long list at http://www.podcastingnews.com/topics/Podcast_Software.html. Two days after the release of iTunes 4.9, however, users had subscribed to a million podcasts through it.

Podcasts are attractive for a few reasons. If you have broadband, they're easy to download.They're also free, although it's easy to imagine paid-for versions from Apple in future.

The BBC offers podcasts of a number of Radio 4 programmes, including parts of The Today Programme, Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time and From Our Own Correspondent. Radio 3 has offered the Beethoven Symphonies and Virgin Radio puts out Pete & Geoff's Breakfast Show.

Yet I'm unconvinced. Podcasts take content and put it into a form that can't be indexed by search engines or be speed-read, and which you can't hyperlink to (or from). A podcast sits proud of the flat expanse of the internet like a poppy in a field. Until we get really good automatic speech-to-text converters, such content will remain outside the useful, indexable web.

To compare the efficacy of speech versus text, take a look at ABC News's interview with Apple's head Steve Jobs on the announcement of the new iTunes, at http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/print?id=892335. It takes 1,150 words, or about 12KB. The podcast is at http://a.abcnews.com/podcast/shuffle.mp3 and takes up 2.1MB of space, lasting just under six minutes. It has audio adverts and an announcer with a faintly annoying voice, while Jobs's voice is clearly coming through a phone line. The text is clear and straightforward.

There is one time when a podcast obviously wins: commuting. In the US that's more likely to be by car (especially in California), so people are going to find themselves listening to the radio more. FM radio in the US is in a cultural death spiral, so podcasting makes sense for people on the way to or from work.

For the moment, though, podcasting is still coalescing from the internet's cosmic dust. Enjoy it while it's new.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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