Years ago, when podcasting was relatively new, it was mainly downloaded for listening. The name podcasting comes from Apple’s iPod MP3 player, which was the hottest personal technology device at the time. It was not Internet-connected at the time. Podcasts were treated like music downloads — you acquired them through a computer, stored them locally, and listened whenever you wanted.
Two things have changed that model:
- Fast data connections and smartphones have combined into a mobile revolution which has taken audio into a mostly mobile era;
- Consumers have adopted cloud-based streaming access to content as a digital lifestyle, as opposed to locally stored content ownership.
Why haven’t (some) podcast apps moved along with the times? Downloading is fine when you want local storage for offline listening. Music subscription services offer that, too. But streaming should not be hidden or secondary, as is still the case too often.
Pocket Casts is a popular Android app that attempts to fill the void of Android not providing a native podcast experience (as the Apple Podcasts app does for iOS users). Here is what happens when you enter that app and try to discover new programs by listening to them:
- On the Discover screen, you click a podcast program.
- On the program screen, there is no stream link in sight. The only touchable element is a SUBSCRIBE button. Why would anyone want to commit to a program by subscribing, and putting it in their favorites list, before hearing a single word? The most recent episode is listed on this screen, but you can pound on it all you want — nothing will happen.
- After tapping the SUBSCRIBE button, you’re back to the Discover screen. Still no way to hear the program you just subscribed to.
- You navigate to the Podcasts screen, where your subscriptions reside. You can see your new program. Still no way to listen.
- You touch the program icon, and are taken to a screen which lists the newest and recent episodes. There is a Download icon next to each. Still no Play button anywhere.
- Tapping an episode title brings up an episode screen with program notes. It says UNPLAYED, which is certainly true at this point, as the app has given no obvious way to play it. You have still not heard a word. Another Download icon is present.
- Wait — there is also a small menu icon in the upper-right corner. See it? maybe you didn’t. Many people won’t. Touching it brings up a menu of choices, one of which is Stream Episode. Buried in an inconspicuous menu!
So, after seven steps, you can finally stream your new show, which you have already committed to your saved programs. If, in step 5, you tap the download icon, the full program is downloaded and stored in your device before the stream begins.
From a user experience perspective, this app is stuck in the download model during the streaming era.
It might be unfair to pick on Pocket Casts, as other apps also bury the stream and discourage quick, experimental auditions of podcasts. But Pocket Casts is a paid app, and on that basis, perhaps, deserves to be called out for an experience that some people might find frustrating.
Apple’s Podcasts app is similarly hobbled for those who stream first, subscribe later. Clicking a program on the main discovery screen cuts out one of Pocket Casts’ unnecessary steps, sending you directly to an episode list … where you see Download icons. Tap one of them, then tap your fingers patiently while the download ensues. What is not evident is this: If you tap the title instead, you’ll get a stream. That’s good — but why isn’t it obvious? Why does “stream” seem to be a dirty word in these apps, one of which hides it in a menu you might never notice, and one of which eliminates the word entirely?
The difference between streaming and downloading has been gradually eroded by high-speed WiFi and data, to the point where is no practically difference between the two for many people. In music, streaming audio usually means this: “Touch it and hear it.” C’mon podcast apps. Get with the times.