Apple, please set the podcast free

The logo used by Apple to represent Podcasting

Image via Wikipedia

Today my new iPod Touch arrived. And with it came the feeling that this post, already long overdue, needs writing.

I’m a big radio nerd. I was a journalist and producer for BBC Radio for five years. Before that I dabbled in hospital radio, student radio, did work experience with Chris Evans at Radio 1, and may have at some point turned the living room at home into my own Top 40 station. But with only two records to link between. Damn, I got good at that link.

Radio in the States isn’t the same, and I really miss the BBC. (And it’s not just because of the adverts — although yes, they are more frequent and ten times as obnoxious as those on UK commercial stations.) But actually what I miss is more subtle: British radio is smarter, and more stimulating; it promotes curiosity and doesn’t speak to the lowest common denominator. Mostly, it’s just better funded.

But there’s no reason why it should be this way. In TV and online, diverse and niche content have thrived. Bazillion-channel satellite and cable distribution means that if someone wants to watch cricket in the States, they can. HBO, AMC and Showtime together with hundreds of other specialist channels provide high quality, often ad-free programming. And then, of course there are shows on demand.

For reading online, there’s a blog tailored to your tastes and interests. And if you can’t find it (oh, it’s there), you can curate your own Twitter/Tumblr/WordPress feed to make your own. The low barriers to entry and the infinite opportunity for distribution means that every niche, however small or weird, can be catered to.

So what happened with radio? The medium itself seems to be doing fine. NPR’s listening numbers stay strong and the FM dial is still crowded out with Alt Rock and Pop stations (albeit with ever blander mixes). Sure, my local Classical station’s frequency doesn’t make it to Marin any longer, but, by and large, radio is the same as it ever was: there in the kitchen, in the car, out in the yard. I really believe that for as long as there are sports and automobiles, radio will live on just the same way as it has for over 100 years. They just don’t wear dinner suits any more.

But there’s no niche platform. No equivalent of HBO or WordPress. Talented aspiring broadcasters have nowhere to go and no outlet for their creativity.

“Oh but there is…”, I hear you mutter.

Ah yes, the podcast. Apple’s grand afterthought. The neglected step-child of iTunes. It’ll never make any money so, hell, it probably doesn’t even deserve a primary link in the iOS Music navigation.

I suppose that this could sound disingenuous. Apple unwittingly donated the name that we now know downloadable audio by. And without a presence in iTunes, perhaps there would be no platform for podcasts at all. But that doesn’t seem likely to me. If there’s a demand for the product (and there is) then the establishment of a platform is pretty easy.

A podcast platform independent from Apple would allow you to download and synchronise podcasts across a range of devices. It would provide statistics on usage (not just downloads, but actual plays). This, in turn, would give advertisers real data to work with. Real money enters the ecosystem, and instead of every brand name podcast being supported by Audible’s desperate attempts to sign up another first-month-free subscription, real advertisers could bring real money to talented audio producers.

Maybe there could even be an HBO or a Freshly Pressed of podcasts, showcasing high quality independent content. Or maybe that’s hoping for too much.

But for any of this to happen, Apple must let go. No business can hope to overturn Apple’s dominance of the podcast platform because the fragmentation is so great. Hulu gained traction with the Daily Show and Fox programming. What would do the same for a Podcast platform.

And it’s not as if people haven’t tried. Remember Odeo? Probably not. It was Evan Williams’ company that gave birth to Twitter. It started life as a podcast platform.

My hope is that Apple gets bored of podcasts and lets them go the same way as iWeb. They might think that they’re doing everybody a favor by providing the platform; but they’re not. Announcing that iTunes will no longer support podcasts could be the only thing that really breathes life into pre-recorded audio.

So, please Apple… set the podcast free.

Real life Grisham

It was six years ago today that I moved to California. September 5th was Labor Day in 2005 as well. I remember arriving to a very quiet Palo Alto and staying in a motel before moving onto the Stanford campus the next day.

That was also the day that I took a flight for which I was charged a fuel surcharge (of £18) that turns out to have been the result of a price-fixing scheme orchestrated by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

A while back I was invited to apply for compensation under the terms of the settlement of the class action. And today in some coincidental full circle, I opened a mysterious envelope containing my check (around $25). I’d really never imagined being a part of a class action — I’d always thought that they were for characters in John Grisham books — let alone actually get some money from one.

Then again, I must have paid BA and Virgin tens of thousands of dollars over the last six years. So a bit of compensation for some anti-competitive behaviour is really the least that they can do for me.


What’s your URL

It’s been at least 12 years since I had to approve copy and artwork for a bus side. But back then I’m fairly certain that I would have wondered if there couldn’t be a better URL than the one used here. Was anybody actually expected to remember the /en/?


It’s no wonder that advertisers are using and @twitter addresses so much if this is the best kind of landing page URL the web teams can come up with.

Blogging the London riots

Summer was traditionally a quiet time for news. Not 2011, it seems. Especially if the weekend just passed is anything to go by. In the United States, it’s all been about debt ceilings and downgrades (with the odd brawl thrown in for good measure).

Meanwhile, London has seen an extraordinary outburst in rioting and looting. Some of it just a couple of hundred yards from where I used to live in Brixton. I suppose that these days it’s unsurprising that within just hours of the major story breaking, there’s an angle on the role of social media. Twitter is playing its part (not always helpfully, it seems) and there’s an interesting story on the role of Blackberry Messenger being used to organize assemblies of rioters.

But I wanted here to highlight some great ways in which blogging has also contributed to the discussion. These days, for any breaking story in the UK, my go-to source for the latest on a story will be the Guardian’s live blogs. I’ve been hooked on these ever since the UK elections (and coalition-building aftermath). The bloggers present frequent recaps on the latest headlines and bring in information and sources from all around the web, as the story breaks.

Last night The West Londoner blog (hosted on provided a great series of time ticker updates. Judging by the volume of comments, this was a service that at least hundreds (probably thousands) found valuable and hadn’t found elsewhere on the internet.

This morning I found a link pointing to another fascinating perspective on the riots: Insp Winter claims to be a police officer who was working over the weekend. His account of events is fascinating:

The traditional, stereotypical, image of a public order police officer is that of some knuckle dragging man mountain who’s main skill in life is being able to knock a door down in one hit. As I survey the people around me, none of them fit that. They’re all reasonably intelligent, in the van there have been long discussions on what the cause of this is.

Lately there’s been much made of the impact that Twitter and Facebook can have in coverage of big news stories. But in an event like this, where a series of localized events together make the story so huge, micro-blogs can be chaotic and distorting. The longer form can provide the considered, aggregated and personal aspects that are ultimately so much more rewarding and informative.

Redefining scrolling

I’ve not found Apple’s Lion upgrade painful or particularly remarkable. But I’m going to admit to being pretty impressed by Apple’s brazen redefinition of how we should scroll using trackpads and mouse wheels.

“Natural scrolling” ha ha.

Next to trying to type on somebody else’s non-Dvorak keyboard, reversed scrolling could easily became one of the most tedious cross-machine usability irritations.

I continue to find it pretty extraordinary that a company that still holds only a little over 10% of the PC market can be so influential on the rest of the industry. The smart money must be on “natural” scrolling being de facto scrolling for every computer within a year or two.

Of course, the more interesting issue is why Apple felt the need to unify touchpad and touchscreen scrolling at this point. Doubtless, like the good Apple consumers that we are, we’re being prepped for something.

True University

This week I was lucky enough to join around 200 other employees and founders of companies that are in the True Ventures portfolio at True University.

How's your Latin?

It’s fairly common for venture firms to take their founders and CEOs on trips that involve a mix of inspiration, education and fun. But I think that this was a first for a venture firm to get their companies’ employees together to meet, socialize and hear from genuine experts in the startup field.

I majored in Early, the track devoted to discussion of business models and customer development. We were so privileged to have Wednesday’s classes taught by the two redoubtable experts in the field: Alex Osterwalder and Professor Steve Blank.

Alex walked us through his Business Model Canvas in the morning. Then Steve spent the afternoon showing us how to use the Canvas to iterate on a business model using quantitative and qualitative data gathered in the customer development process. The afternoon finished with presentations and Steve Blank reminding me that we should be thinking about pricing on value… if only he knew!

Thursday morning’s keynotes featured Dan Ariely. I’ve enjoyed Dan’s books and his occasional appearances on APM’s Marketplace, seeing him in real life was great, too. Even though I suspect he’s given exactly the same talk likely hundreds of times, it felt fresh and engaging.

We also heard from Jeff Veen, CEO and Founder of Typekit. He told us about the weekend just before Christmas last year when his team had to build the software for a new CDN origin server to cope with a sudden increase in demand — a project that had been scoped to take 6 weeks was completed in two days. There were some great lessons around how a startup’s emergency response procedures should be setup, and also the huge value in effective, informative dashboards.

I switched tracks for most of Thursday afternoon and spent most of it in the company of Kenny Van Zant. Kenny came to talk with a few of us at Automattic a few months ago, and it was great to see him lay out some of his thoughts on sales, pricing and packaging again.

Kenny has a theory that runs something along the lines of “if you charge for your software or service, you’re always at risk of another company coming along and disrupting the market from below”. Much as any value pricer wants to hope otherwise, there’s an evident reality to this. Apple aside, can anybody name a truly disruptive product or company that was priced above the rest of the market?

My name badge collection from startup events is pretty big (I’ve been to quite a few). But I honestly can’t remember a more fulfilling and (entirely unrelated) well organized couple of days. I owe a big thank you to the True team, and all the guests that came to speak to us.