Thoughts on Apple’s Podcast App

My Twitter timeline exploded today when Apple unleashed its new podcasting iOS app. It was hardly surprising that a dedicated podcast app was on the way – since Apple removed this functionality from Music.app in the iOS 6 betas – yet I was at least expecting the app to ship with the GM build of iOS 6.

Needless to say, I immediately installed the app, however I prepared myself for disappointment. Why? The reason is quite simple: Apple has historically been very bare bones with its approach to how core suites of apps should function. There are numerous stock iOS apps that I can single out here, although one could argue that my definition of ‘bare bones’ just means not enough for my needs. Indeed, one could argue that point and I would be fine with that.

I and I’m sure many of you reading this believe that shipping a minimal, yet polished 1.0 app, and then quick iterating and further polishing it is the way to go. Apple rolls slowly so the speak, and a great example of this is subsequent versions of iOS. When I installed their podcast app earlier today and started interacting with it, my initial impression was that this wasn’t merely an unfinished 1.0 app – it was lacking in core UX that I expected from a podcasting app. As a podcasting aficionado, I concede that I have exponentially higher standards and ask more from this type of app. That being said, I’m consequently cognizant of this and am able to check my baggage at the door. I asked myself what one would need as a podcasting novice to receive a great experience, and I came up with a short list of items:

  • The app must have a clean, appealing, and friendly UI
  • Podcast discoverability must be front and center as a priority
  • Episodes should automatically update for the user when they become available, and reasonable defaults should be chosen for how long downloaded episodes should remain on the device.
  • Audio should continue to play while the app is in the background (this should be obvious by now)
  • iCloud syncing should be available to sync playback timelines between iOS devices (yes, I know iCloud syncing is a bit of a hot mess for third party developers)

On these factors alone, Apple’s podcasting app fails on almost every level (yes, it can at least auto download new episodes). The navigation experience for discovering podcasts is clunky. Instead of a simple grid or list layout for shows based on category, you have to switch views to access the iTunes store – which surprisingly caused the app to crash the first time I used it. I can let that slide, as that’s standard experience in other apps like iBooks where you need to tap to switch between the library and store. Where things get really wonky is in the skeuomorphic design of the audio player itself. Whilst playing an episode, you get a custom playback controller, so no standard iOS widgets there (that’s been an increasingly worrying trend), as well as an old reel-to-reel tape deck that displays in the background. The effect of the tape deck is subtle, and admittedly very well designed, but it seems a bit off putting to me. Perhaps some will enjoy it at first, and who knows, with time perhaps I would as well if I continued to use the app. You’ll also find a ‘Top Stations’ feature, where the most popular podcasts in various genres are grouped, and represented by very large square album artwork. To browse through the various genres (e.g., tech news etc), you swipe from left to right by using what looks like an old style radio dial. It’s a neat effect, but even on a third gen iPad the performance was a bit chunky – not to mention this isn’t the fastest way to view a top selection of podcast genres. In short, what Apple is trying to deliver on the familiar look of real world tangible objects, it falls short of accomplishing the goal it sets out to do – quickly and efficiently. If you want to see what I think is a shining example of great app design, check out ShiftJelly’s Pocketcasts app. The way they have laid out the popular podcasts page seems sublime and is easy to navigate.

If you have ever read Apple’s HIG or any of their iOS documentation, you’ll remember that one of the things Apple recommends is that you as the developer should always implement standard features a user comes to expect from iOS. I can only think of one great example, and that’s iCloud syncing – which is ironic as this is sorely lacking in the version Apple shipped today. Speaking of shipping, I keep thinking about this and ask myself, why now? Could they not have waited until after iOS 6? This would have given them more time to refine the app and add iCloud syncing – not to mention the initial experience would have been much more polished.

There’s no pressing need release this now it seems – the timing just feel off. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will install this app on their iPhones and iPads, only to receive a rude awakening when they don’t find all of the podcasts they subscribed to on one device haven’t shown up on any others. The early 2000s called, and they want their archaic method of synchronizing data amongst many devices back. Oh, and I just about forgot to mention how horrible the app icon is.