Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Friday, 20 May 2005 12:35 UK

Podcasting could be a revolution

Men listening to digital music players
Millions of people now own portable digital music players

It is easy to claim the revolution is just around the corner, but there might just be something in podcasting, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

After stumbling downstairs this morning and putting the coffee on to brew I opened up my laptop.

As I did so, a whole load of software woke up and decided to have a look around, showing far more dedication to the task than I normally manage at 6am.

My e-mail client kicked off a request to my ISP for any outstanding messages.

Unfortunately for me this did not actually work since Virtual Internet, the host I use, has been having technical problems for weeks now and today was another bad day.

The other programs had a better time of it.

The system clock read the network time and adjusted itself by a few microseconds, the little weather widget that sits on my desktop checked to see what the temperature was going to be today, and my newsreader software looked at my favourite weblogs to see if their RSS feeds had been updated.

Nothing unusual there, but today something new happened.

An interview about the EU constitution with Europe minister Douglas Alexander appeared in my iTunes music library, ready for me to upload onto my portable music player so I can listen to it on the way into town.

Yes - I have started listening to podcasts, downloaded audio files intended for listening on the move.

You might think this is a bit late to jump on the bandwagon, but I do have my reasons for holding off.

I have been watching the fuss about podcasting over the past few months but did not really want to clutter up my computer with yet more utility software that would probably only be used for a week or two.

I am also perfectly happy to download audio files by hand if I want them, so did not feel I was missing out by not automating the process.

However, since Go Digital, the World Service show I appear on, is going to be one of the programmes in the BBC's podcasting trial I felt obliged to have a go.

Macs and aliens

It was astonishingly easy.

From deciding to get connected to hearing the dulcet tones of Sarah Montague introducing Michael Howard took 10 minutes, and most of that was spent downloading iPodder, the small program that glues the bits together.

Once iPodder was running I added the podcast URL from the Today website into the subscription list and the audio was downloaded.

Technology analyst Bill Thompson
The quality of some of the podcasts I have listened to is certainly as good as many supposedly professional radio stations
A new Today entry appeared in my iTunes library and I was away. And this morning the latest interview appeared all by itself.

I am already exploring the podcast universe, and have signed up for gadget reviews, Mac hints and tips, and the views of a set of space aliens who go round interviewing people from the Earth and commenting on our peculiarities.

The name is rather inelegant, but I fear we are stuck with it. It is also misleading, since podcasting has nothing to do with the iPod and you do not need to be using Apple's hardware or software.

For example, while iPodder will send files automagically to your iTunes music library, you can use the auto-sync and auto-playlist features on Windows Media Player to get exactly the same results, and then send the resulting files to any MP3 player you like.

A lot of the material out there is dull, badly produced, uninspired, derivative or simply misconceived.

However, the same can be said of television, as a surf through the channels on satellite or Freeview will reveal, and this does not mean there is not great stuff too.

The quality of some of the podcasts I have listened to is certainly as good as many supposedly professional radio stations, and as the tools for finding and filtering what is out there improve we will inevitably see new ideas, new approaches and new names emerge.

And a podcast with no listeners may take up disk space, but it is not stopping anyone else doing their own thing, so there is absolutely no argument for any form of quality control.

It is not like radio, where the fact that I am talking on a frequency means that you cannot be.

In fact I suspect that the extra effort needed to produce reasonable quality audio, package it and then host it also means that we are less likely to see random rants or the worst excesses of the blogging flame wars.

And while someone will no doubt come up with a tool that lets you add comments and trackbacks to other people's podcasts so as to create an audio equivalent of the chatter-filled blogosphere, for the moment each show stands alone.

Sharing the load

Storage may not be an issue, but bandwidth will be, and that means we will still have broadcast radio for a while yet.

It does not matter to Radio 4 whether 10 or 10 million people are listening at the same time, as the radio broadcast they send out is picked up and amplified individually by each receiver.

Man listening to audio downloaded from a computer
Podcasts are essentially downloadable MP3 files of shows "on demand"
But if 10 million of us decided to hit the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed for the Today interview at the same time then the servers and the network simply could not cope.

This is not insoluble, and content distribution services like BitTorrent show how large files can be spread over the network so that the load is shared.

We just have to hope that attempts by rights owners to choke the development of this sort of tool just because it can be used for copying unlicensed content do not succeed.

Podcasting will not replace radio in my life, not least because I like to listen in real-time.

But it adds an interesting element to the mix and is an easy way to find new voices that would otherwise never come to my attention.

It will be interesting to see whether it is the Today interview or space aliens Blugg and Doctoe who make it to the top of my playlist more often.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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