10 August 2012

Stand-alone Podcasts on iOS: a step backwards

I was never a big fan of listening to audio-books and podcasts – I find it silly to just sit around waiting for the information to play and very much prefer to read it at my own pace – but that started to change after purchasing my iPhone. I can’t say I am a big podcasts consumer even now, with only three subscriptions, but I do fire the Music app occasionally to check out new science-fiction book reviews or opinions on the smartphone market. Needless to say I was intrigued by the decision to split podcasts into a separate app for the next version of iOS and decided to try it out.

At first, the app surprised me in a good way. My biggest fear was that the new app would not pick up the podcasts episodes already on my device and make me re-download them. That didn’t happen, fortunately; it seamlessly recognized existing podcasts so I could start using it right away. I turned on ‘Subscription’ and ‘Auto-Download’, sorted the episodes list by newest first and set the app to remove content after playing it – the ideal setup for me. It looked like a better, more feature-rich, app, even though I was unlikely to use some of them – like the hidden control to put the app to sleep after a chosen interval. It has the same level of integration with the audio controls as the Music app, so you can easily switch episodes from the lock screen or from the multitasking bar.

Other aspects of the app are not that great. Take the design for example: I can’t understand who they are trying to target with the fake tape recorder look – I hear it’s called skeuomorphic. Being in my early thirties, I can still recognize a tape recorder, but I don’t hold any emotional attachment to it; but does the younger generation still cares about something like that? How can you associate an antiquated technology nobody is using anymore with a hobby born in the digital era, less than a decade ago? I guess this design could would appeal to 40-something nostalgics, but is that really the demographic Apple is going for with a separate Podcasts app? Seems like a bad choice to me…

  • iOS Podcasts home screen
  • iOS Podcasts downloading episodes
  • iOS Podcasts controls from the multitasking bar
  • iOS Podcasts subscription options
  • iOS Podcasts player with old tape design
  • iOS Podcasts Sleep Timer options

As I used the app more frequently during my recent trip to Paris – reading in the crowded French subways is usually very uncomfortable, so the smartphone is the gadget of choice for commuters there – I started discovering more and more annoyances. Unlike the Music app, who would jump to the newer episode after finishing the current one, Podcasts goes to the previous episode; for me that means pulling out my iPhone every time I finish one and jumping manually to the newer episode. This choice makes absolutely no sense to me; are there really people who listen to stories backward, from the finish to the start?! In the process the app also marks the previous episode as ‘Unplayed’; if you go back later, you are left wondering if you maybe skipped over that one. Another bad choice: the fast-forward and rewind buttons in the app and on the lock screen have their functions reversed, so if you want to jump to the newer episode you should click rewind… And good luck trying to use them if the next episode is not yet downloaded, it just goes into an endless loop repeating the last seconds of the current episode. The app does a lot of weird things with deleting past episodes as well. The ones synced through iTunes are not automatically removed, despite the setting. It somehow manages to delete the episode I just finished almost instantly, but keeps the previous one and starts it, as I mentioned before, marking it as unplayed. As usability goes, this is messy!

There are some big performance problems as well and the recent update didn’t fix them all. The interface becomes unresponsive when checking for new episodes and sometimes randomly as you use it. Maybe this is some twisted tactic to get people into consuming podcasts, then making them switch to a better paid app because the default one is sub-par; this could generate income, but also a lot of frustration with users. Let’s hope someone at Apple is still working on the app because in this state it isn’t ready to be featured in a new OS.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. well, it's nice to hear some non-biased opinions for a change :).
      P.S. must remember to rate the show on iTunes!

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