It’s been 9 days since the release of iTunes 4.9, the first version of the media player to integrate podcasting. Reviews have been largely positive, with users praising the aggregation features and integration with the iPod, and noting some hidden items such as videoblog support.
At the same time, though, a growing number of flaws have emerged in both the design of the software and how Apple has communicated — or failed to communicate — with the content providers they’re now leveraging. Here’s an overview of where iTunes has gone astray.
The typical RSS feed contains 10 to 15 entries. It’s reasonable in an RSS aggregator to display all of them to the user. What is not reasonable, however, is for an aggregator to default to downloading all enclosures for a new feed.
The contents of my music podcast’s feed is over a half-gigabyte of data. Now, ordinarily, I’d be happy for anyone to download the last 12 hours of my show — if only they were going to listen to it. The reason for much of the traffic in the days since the iTunes launch is not new listeners, but existing listeners switching over. It’s a duplication and a massive waste of bandwidth, for which a lot of podcasters are paying with real dollars. My site traffic has more than doubled in the last week and a half. I’m fortunate to have enough bandwidth to be able to survive that first wave of iTunes users. And yet, my show wasn’t one that was listed.
The earlobe lottery
Podcasters had been told that Apple was sourcing the iPodder directory to generate its own. This was good news: we all wanted to be there on launch. I knew that I was in that directory, so I figured I was in good shape. Then, on the morning of the launch, I searched the database for my show. No results found.
So I went to submit my RSS feed, and found that someone had already submitted it. Now, my show is as podsafe as it gets, so I’m unconcerned about whether it’s got copyright issues that would concern Apple. Maybe they’re manually listening to shows to quality-check them. Maybe they’ve determined that they can’t accept items licensed “non-commercial” under the Creative Commons license (though that’s not what the license says). I can only guess, as I wait through week 2, what the problem could be. One thing is for sure: Apple’s not talking.
Lack of communication
Almost everything we knew about iTunes, we heard second-hand from people like Adam Curry and Dave Winer. We heard that it was going great, that there’d be some new elements to add to our feeds, and that it was coming really soon. We got 24 hours’ notice of its impending release — and still we got none of the information we needed to prepare our podcasts.
Nobody knows when they’re going to update. Nobody knows how they decide which podcasts they host and which they don’t. Nobody even knows what the procedure is. All any podcaster can do at this point is to hope that those who do have access to Apple will let some detail slip. This is no way to communicate with independents. The lack of communication on the part of Apple has spawned a rumor mill which serves no one.
Apple published a new namespace, “itunes:”, for podcast feeds. The value of much of it is still in question, with parts of it duplicating existing RSS elements or providing value only to iTunes users.
But worse, if you go to the provided document type definition, where you should see a listing of available elements, you instead get redirected to the iTunes homepage. This behavior is, in a word, dumb. In three words, really, really dumb. A number of podcasters have taken it upon themselves to figure out the itunes: namespace (and where it diverges from Apple’s published documentation). Their work is impressive in its speed and efficiency, but all that wouldn’t be necessary if only Apple would talk to us.
Apple has time to fix all of these problems and regain the goodwill of podcasters. But they will need to deal with us directly, not through some self-appointed ambassadors. They need to get onto the mailing lists, address the concerns, and be responsive. It’s not something they are known for doing, to be sure, but they didn’t invent this community. We did. And we’re going to demand some amount of cooperation from those who are going to benefit from our work.