How far are you willing to go to find a podcasting app that suits your needs?
There's something bordering ingenuity and naïveté every time a creator goes public and shares the idea that will change the world. The cynic not so deep inside me tells me they will never succeed; I think it will be an embarrassment, not worth the time. If I have the chance, I give my early opinion to avoid all that trouble later.
Then there's people that simply have a dream. They know what they want and they'll find a way to get there. When that goal is measurable it gives the project some sort of realism, something tangible, a benchmark to look forward to. In this situations I move from being a critic and align with the creator. Working towards a goal, no matter how revolutionary or irrelevant it might be, is something I want to get behind.
Only a couple of weeks ago I got in touch with Shahruz Shaukat, one of those dreamers I'm referring to. His idea was bold but measurable: to create the fastest podcast client on a mobile device.
Let's go back and do some background work. In the mid noughties Apple had in the iPod an important line of hardware sales and in iTunes the perfect companion (desktop) app. Podcasts were thrown in as a free alternative to paid music and why not, to tackle the chronic absence of radio on the gadgets until very recently.
His goal was to find a quick way to start listening podcasts. He wasn't happy with the options available and decided to create his own
It's fair to say that it was in Apple's interest to nurture an podcast ecosystem available to download to every iPod owner. The focus on the music player business has since transitioned to mobile phone and then to post-PC devices while the whole architecture hasn't evolved at all. As far as Apple is concerned, downloading a podcast in 2012 is the same as doing so six years ago on an iPod video.
Today there are dozens of alternatives to get around this very same issue on iOS. Of course you can use the native iTunes app to search the music store, but you aren't able to download a podcast episode right there -- you'll be forced to sync to a desktop computer. In the past I have talked about Instacast, which downloads new episodes in your subscriptions without the need to sync. Other replacements apps also try to improve playback and get around certain issues that I don't think the average user even cares about.
With such a competitive landscape in such a niche market, why does Shahruz want to reinvent the wheel? What is so important about it? For him the key isn't a long list of features and he isn't going to market to compete in terms in functionality. His goal was to have a quick way to start listening podcasts. He wasn't happy with the options available and decided to create his own. This product is called Podbay.
Podbay promises to be the quickest way to listen to a podcast episode on your iPhone. Unlike Apple's own iTunes app or other third party options, Podbay allows you to type a name, tap on the result list and start listening. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, so let's break it down a little bit more.
Getting rid of unnecessary clutter
The first thing you notice when you launch the app is the total absence of any visual interference. This is you, the search bar and a recent show that reminds you of the recently played podcasts. The level of simplicity is somewhat insulting until you remember the design objective: getting to play episodes quickly.
The search window simply throws in results in a typical table view that you can tap to access all the episodes. Yes, this is all the episodes, unlike Instacast, for instance, that I have it set up to show only the most recent eight episodes. The most compromising decision here is not allowing the user to see the show notes or the full title or the episode -- you only get it once you start playing it.
Notice however, how the lack of information is compensated by the link to iTunes for further details. It looks like the developer decided agains including clutter when the stock app is there for a reason, right? Controversially, you can launch iTunes pulling down as in Tweetie's pull down to refresh gesture.
The play view is also simplicity on its own, replacing the typical play, pause and rewind buttons by words. There's nothing wrong with it. I do like the huge slide bar that fits much better the size of my fingertip than the default sliders you see in other iOS apps.
It might not be the most elegant solution you've seen but we're going for responsiveness, usability and speed
As you would expect, Podbay takes advantage of the music controls on the multitasking bar and on the lock screen, allowing users to pause quickly while on the go. These controls are much more useful than the app's own, which reminds me that this is probably how everyone listens to music and radio shows these days anyway. Do you really have to dig on a given app to play and pause? Whatever the answer is, it shows that Podbay's controls aren't as convenient as they could be.
A game of performance
So is Podbay actually quicker than iTunes? The actual search saves you some tapping and scrolling through the vast collection of music, films, TV shows and podcasts available. Podbay is search directly onto the podcast directory and the result list populates very quickly. iTunes on the other hand, shows the two most relevant search results and only tapping on it you access to all the episodes that match your keyword.
Mileage on Wi-Fi and on a 3G network varies enormously depending on the podcast itself -- length was independent in the testing. For some reason I cannot explain, both Podbay and iTunes rejected streaming Juno Dubstep podcast over 3G (iTunes gave an error message saying it wasn't available) while they played without problems over Wi-Fi. Not very reassuring.
Some episodes seemed to take longer to load for no apparent reason. Since the results were very similar I think we can put it down to the quality of the web hosting service and the time it took them serving the file and not the app itself. This is however, a massive drawback since the Podbay doesn't have any meaningful way of telling you why everything is silent. I would expect some sort of visual feedback letting users know that the thing is buffering or giving an error message, which it never did even if iTunes gave me the correct prompts with no delay.
The realisation of a project
Overall I'm surprised with the way Podbay manages to play a podcast as soon as possible. Only knowing the results rely on the web host speed you understand why apps like Instacast download it to the hard drive to be able to take it with you. Streaming over 3G can be complex in some areas and with certain titles. I didn't experience any bumps or quality decrease, though. Without having done a very extensive testing -- I ony heard about the app three weeks ago before it was launched on the App Store -- my initial thought is that it delivers.
Podbay is possibly one of the quickest way to find a podcast episode and start listening without any need to download. It's simple interface and approach makes it ideal for playing your favourite podcast on the go or while driving, since you only need a couple of seconds instead of struggling navigating thought the menus in iTunes.
I hope that the developer keeps working on it an iterating on the concept: I'm in love with the work done to remove all the unnecessary crap, this is podcasting to its barebones. What I'm missing is more visual feedback, easier to read text and titles and a little bit more information on the episode description wouldn't hurt either.