A change in graphic direction and a new pricing structure is all you need to revolt the troops
Hit the updates icon on the App Store and if you are using Instacast on your iPhone you'll see the the version 2.0. Yes, the podcast app that everyone has been talking about this week for the good or the wrong reasons. I want to get stress my position before I even start describing what's new: I don't have any problem with developers asking for money to support a product. I think it's perfectly understandable that the work that goes into preventing things going obsolete has to be paid.
The new Instacast update brings some new graphical elements, functionality and new ways interacting with your podcasts. If you're new to this app category, Instacast champions a better way to download, utilise and enjoy podcasts without having to launch iTunes or the local Music app. There are other alternatives with their vision of what this type of app should be — think of the one-man-dream Podbay — but Instacast seems to have a strong following in this iOS niche.
Perhaps it's this combination of very vocal users what has given it some buzz recently, but I honestly think it has more to do with breaking the habits of it's seasoned supporters. Instead of introducing new features and tweaks slowly, developer Vemedio decided to go for a shockingly huge release. This is an important time for Instacast, an app that's growing up with growing pains.
Going through the release notes it's probably better than launching the app you use daily and see that things have changed while you were away. The one you notice immediately is the inclusion of a launch screen with the Instacast logo (the name on a fat serif). Just like Apple says, adding a splash screen with a background different than the app's main view will make it feel slow. And it does. The inclusion of this logo on the top bar is also questionable as it only adds a bit of branding.
Back to the feature list, the interface has been revamped to include new hierarchical tabs to filter information and a bottom bar that summarises what's happening instead of changing the way information is presented. We can refer to it as the old Reeder sliding menubar. This is now gone. The 2.0 main view feels a bit heavier but with the continuous testing I've given the app this week on my daily commute I've grown used to it.
I'm not a fan of the new smart folders that now dominated the app view as tabs. Maybe this was thought for people subscribed to more podcasts than me though. My current selection included not more than 15 subscriptions with 9 episodes waiting to be played. If you have more than this, maybe you have the urgent need to put these in folders to organise your library better. I don't think so. This of course, depends on your mileage, the amount of subscriptions and how often they update — all my subscriptions are weekly and I rarely get more than two episodes waiting.
Having said this, the positioning of the new tabs is odd. You're giving me what I would normally think it's a default view and calling it Subscriptions. Then, you present me with Playlists and Bookmarks and tell me those are Pro features. If you're going to have some special feature reserved for special users, it's OK to give a sneak peek, but not having this on your face every time you launch the app.
This is something like in-app-purchase bait. It's what the PC industry calls shareware: showing off what hardcore users are doing but not giving the regular person any true functionality
Just to be clear again, I don't mind these are paid-for features, I'm simply concerned these are pushed in such a way that they take over the standard version display.
Iterating the playback controls
I normally use the controls on the lock-screen, either to pause or skip 30 secs backwards when I miss something — the London Tube is noisy after all. The actual playback view is particularly polished, showing show notes on the back of the cover art and the already mentioned bookmarks, which work like the annotations on a Kindle if you ask me.
Then there's some new code implemented that is on the verge of being gimmicky but I do like it. Sliding upwards will reveal a faux multitasking bar with advanced audio playback controls. Here you can control the volume, speed, set a timer to pause, AirPlay and sharing tools. The brushed metal icons Apple uses in some of its presentations to illustrate product features can be a bit confusing but you can get the meaning after some trial and error. This works like a secret locker where you can tweak your preferences and I just love that.
Simpler navigation and a lot to learn
The biggest problem I had with the previous version was switching between subscriptions and downloaded views. Tapping on a show attracted by the "one episode available" sign would prove useless if I was underground without any Internet connection and the episode in question not cached. The new navigation panes solve this issue but I'm still missing a general switch for "I'm leaving the house in ten minutes. Please download everything available now" type of thing.
There are plenty of little tweaks that are waiting to be discovered and it's a shame that regular use doesn't encourage you to discover this by accident. After all, Instacast is made to download new episodes for you. You can alter behaviours such as the order in the download queue, scrubbing, rules for managing individual podcasts, knowing what to do once you finish listening to a show,... The list just goes on. I appreciate the time that has gone into solving these specific issues that I understand those come from user feedback and feature requests.
I'm also reading on the release notes of the first usage that some other things I'm missing or dislike are going to the addressed. As a storage conscious geek, I want to delete every episode after finishing. Now you can tell Instacast to do this for you automatically. I'm not really sure when this disappeared but I remember this was available some time ago when I would slide to mark as played accidentally and end up cursing for deleting the episode. This isn't the case anymore so I'm looking for a quick way to mark episodes as played too.
Also, the ambiguous term archiving has been renamed to deleting for my surprise. Was this archiving the same as deleting all this time around? I have spent some time deleting from the cache the episodes played individually worried that the archiving wouldn't do the trick.
More surprisingly, the 2.0.1 version makes smart playlists free for all. I don't see the reasoning behind it, I'm guessing this is back by popular demand since users haven't taken very well the new pricing structure as you can see on the App Store comments. I've checked the developer updates on Twitter and the company's blog and it sounds like he hasn't taken very well the negative feedback. I'm upset this update could have created a divide on a community of podcast listeners. By the end of the day you create an app for the listeners, hoping they like it and pay for it. Not the other way around.