Podcasts on iOS – Beyond iTunes

20120615-141728.jpg

There was a time when you wanted to listen to or watch a podcast on your iPod or iPhone, iTunes was your only option.

Nobody can deny that Apple was instrumental in the popularity take off of podcasts since the early days in 2005 when the functionality was added to iTunes but Apple haven’t really done anything revolutionary with them since. In the days of the original iPod the current support of podcasts built into iTunes made total sense. The devices were not wireless and had no Internet connectivity. They needed to be physically connected or docked to a computer to allow iTunes to update their content.

This is no long the case. iPhones, the iPod Touch and the iPad are wireless Internet ready devices and yet Apple still required users to physically connect their device to update their podcast collection up until less than a year ago. Still, when it comes to podcasts the new “WiFi Sync” feature of iOS 5 is not ideal. Podcast management still needs to be controlled from the desktop in iTunes. You still need to go to your computer, fire up iTunes and let your podcasts update.

There are very strong indications that Apple have no interest in supporting podcasts in any more than they do already and this is understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly the podcasting medium has come full circle in the fact that there are so many applications and websites that search, index and playback podcasts on both computers and portable devices that the reliance on iTunes has all but disappeared. Secondly there is no revenue for Apple when it comes to podcasts. The majority are free and iTunes has no facility (and the content producers have no desire) to give access to subscription based shows as far as I know.

I have absolutely no clue why Apple have not added podcast management features in the mobile versions of iTunes that you access from your iPhone or iPad. Only the most basic functionality is available. You can search for podcasts and you can even manually download them individually but no facility is available to automate the process.

To make matters worse not only did Apple not offer these features they prevented third party developers from offering them for a very long time. Apps that are commonly known today as “podcatchers” we’re banned from the App store until quite recently. They had a very strict policy that third party apps that replicated the functionality of native iOS apps we not allowed. Luckily this policy has gradually been relaxed and there is a good choice of apps available today.

So what is the advantage of using a podcatcher app? Let me describe two scenarios in getting new podcasts on to an iPhone.

Scenario number one: Using iTunes for podcast management, I would need to go over to my computer, fire up iTunes, give it time to go through all my podcast subscriptions and download them. Once that has finished I either have to plug my iPhone in or connect to wifi sync and update the content on my iPhone. This takes a little time, longer if I’m doing it wirelessly and iTunes may also do a backup of my device as well which will delay things further. Finally I can disconnect my iPhone and listen to my updated podcasts.

Scenario number two: I fire up my podcatcher app and it downloads the latest podcasts I’m subscribed to directly to my device. I start listening! :)

That’s the bare bones of it. Of course podcatcher apps do offer quite a few other features depending on which one you go for but even when comes to the basics it’s so much simpler. At the time of writing (as listed in Wikipedia) these are the podcatcher apps that are available in the App Store:

PodCruncher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcast-player-manager-app/id421894356?mt=8
Podcaster: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcaster-4/id377195245?mt=8
Downcast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/downcast/id393858566?mt=8
Podcatcher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcatcher/id367314338?mt=8
Instacast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/instacast/id420368235?mt=8
Pocket Casts: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pocket-casts/id414834813?mt=8
RSSRadio: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rssradio-podcast-downloader/id382552897?mt=8
iCatcher!: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/icatcher!-podcast-catcher/id414419105?mt=8

I have used a few of these and recently switched to iCatcher! so a review will most likely follow soon. In the mean time I wholeheartedly recommend you try one if you’re still using iTunes.

Update: According to this blog post Apple are planning on removing podcast functionality from mobile iTunes in iOS 6 and giving them there own app. Still a rumour, but interesting.