Cousin Dan (Hi again! He’s really becoming a regular here, isn’t he?) called me up the other night to return my favor about the whole Media Center hoo-hah call. His return salvo was about podcasting, and I confessed I’d only glanced at it, but I didn’t see the draw, nor did I really ‘get it.’ Disappointed, we chatted on about how media on demand like that was a little silly, and why don’t people just hit up things like Audible.com and all? After all, most radio he and I listen to are either news or music, and we own the music, by in large.
What the hell is podcasting? Podcasting is a way to deliver audio to your MP3 player. Seriously. That is it.
I know! Right now, you’re thinking And I wouldn’t just use iTunes because …? Well, the answer is that podcasting uses RSS (really simple syndication) protocol. Personally, I won’t put it past Apple to put some RSS hacks into iTunes soon. They already have a way to listen to the radio on iTunes (and if anyone knows a Radio Disney feed for iTunes, let me know! and shut up about it, okay). For what it’s worth, not everyone likes iTunes. Some people would much rather grab a CD and throw it in, than my method of find the ‘playlist’ on iTunes (which is named ‘Artist: Album’ by in large) and click play. It’s something I can see both sides of. I like having all my music at my fingertips, and I hate how much room CDs and their jewel cases take up. Since I rarely look at liner notes, I don’t even bother with those most of the time.
RSS, to take a step back, is an XML file format (one of three, but that’s for later) that is used for web syndication. It is, in essence, that little ticker you read on the bottom of CNN that says things like ‘King Kong Attacks!’ only since this is your computer, you can click on it and it takes you to the news article. And, frankly, if it worked like THAT I might actually use it. It doesn’t and, yeah, I don’t.
What you have to do to use RSS is get an RSS feed reader (a.k.a. an aggregator), which goes out and checks RSS-enabled websites and displays any updated news/articles. This is really useful on a blog that’s updated frequently, or a webpage that publishes recaps of your favorite TV shows. In theory, this saves you from having to remember to visit your favorite websites for new content all the time, or wait to check your email. The catch is you have to remember to leave your RSS tool running all the time.
I’m of divided mind about RSS. I’m more likely to check my email and pop into newsgroups/bulletin boards I like than I am to check a news ticker. But the ticker? Sounds so cool. Most aggregators I’ve seen are plug-ins to my browser, which really aren’t what I want. Shockingly enough, I don’t leave my browser open 24/7. Also, the one for Safari isn’t available until I update to OS X 10.4, which I can’t do until they fix Cisco/VPN since I need to be able to remote into the office, so I’m stuck with these options and so far, none fit me, not even NetNewsWire.
Anyway, while this is an interesting concept, podcasting is the same, but instead of showing you a link to an article, it shows you a link to a podcast, which you click on and it loads onto your MP3 player.
Tangent: Podcasting is named for the iPod, in a blend of iconoclastic genius. Let’s take something popular and put its name in our new thing, so that people will look at us! Okay, so maybe it’s only me who thinks that was a great marketing strategy. Podcasting doesn’t require an iPod, by the way, but they’re cool, they work well, and they’re user friendly. So get one.
Podcasting is different from radio in that it’s ‘timeshifted.’ Before you get up in arms about how you don’t know what that means, you probably do it at least every week. Timeshifting is recording a transmission to be played back later. Ever tape anything on your VCR, like a TV show, so you could watch it later? That’s timeshifting. TiVo is a giant timeshifting tool, and since it ‘records’ in high quality, you can see why it’s in demand. Anyone want to buy me a TiVo?
Earlier I mentioned how iTunes has radio stations. That sort of playing is actually a webcast. A webcast is when you ‘cast’ your program over the internet, rather than on TV or the radio. This should not be confused with things like watching a trailer for a movie online. A webcast, originally, was live and wasn’t always recorded. If there was a recording and you played it back later, that’s timeshifting again. The catch here, and this will bake your noodle a little, is that today webcastings aren’t always live, but they’re still called webcasting. How do you tell the difference? You’ll have to pay attention.
At this point, if someone says they’re webcasting, what they mean is they’re putting non-interactive media on the internet, either for a live report or training. If it was interactive, it would be a video conference. I’ve used these a few times, for both interactive online training, and to listen to office meetings I can’t attend for whatever reason. I view them with mixed results, but it’s a preference issue for me. I’m haptic, and I’d rather be there for the meeting. That and the meetings are in dark rooms where I can nap in the back.
Well now that we know that webcasting can be timeshifted, how is it different from podcasting? In a webcast, you have to go to one place and download the file from this remote place and/or play it live from there. All you get is the file (MP3, WMA, MOV, etc). Podcasting contains metadata.
Again, we tangent. Metadata is something thunk up by those wacky people at the W3C, aka the World Wide Web Consortium. Metadata contains information about, well, information. Bear with me. Metadata is short, informative, descriptive data that can be used to label information on a webpage that will allow a computer to scan it and catalogue the data. You remember those old filing cabinets in libraries where you’d look up a book and it would give you a summary of the book, along with the ISBN number, the author, and often the publisher. That concept is what metadata’s all about. The advent of computers jumps this to a new level, because the computer can be told ‘I want the book that’s about a mystery in England, with a woman married to a Scottish scientist’ and come back with ‘Would you like Sharon McCrumb’s ‘Missing Susan’?’
Metadata did not, in case you wondered, pave the way for Yahoo! or Altavista or any other search engines. Search preceded metadata, and the data made it easier. Both Yahoo! and Google, the kings of search engines, still use metadata, even though I can list you a hundred ways to cheat on metadata. Someone else wrote a fantastic article about Metadata and search engines, and I recommend it rather than trying to sum it here.
But this is about podcasting. Podcasting’s metadata contains information like dates, titles, descriptions, etc. Now, technically an MP3 has a lot of that too, which you’d know if you used iTunes (yeah! it stored all that in your MP3 file!) but it’s not something the browser can read, since there are a hundred ways of storing that. An OOG file is different from an MP3 and an M4A and a WMA. By the way, those were all ‘music file’ formats.
The crux of this is that podcasting is different because of it’s content, both metadata and by the fact that they really are recordings. If you’re familiar with blogs, then you may have heard about AudioBlogs. Those are peculiarly enough called autocasting, and are a speech-synthesized version of regular text blogs. AudioBlogs can be transformed magically into a podcast with some RSS for content retrieval.
That retrieval bit is the ‘thing’ that makes a podcast ‘cool.’ It’s also the next hurdle we face.
Now that we know what podcasting is, why it’s different from what we know and love today, we have to figure out how the hell to get it from this nebulous internet and onto your iPod. You get an RSS reader that comprehends pods, and you’re off to the races. They’re supposed to, when you click on the ‘tell me more!’ link, go out to the site, get the podcast, and sync it to your iPod. Or whatever.
Oddly, I now see why certain employers are interested in this. Imagine you have everyone at your office using an RSS tool all the time. Now, you use that tool for things like status information (‘Email is down’ and ‘Application JavaJive is now working’) and you’ve given the cube monkeys a way to know what’s new. Add onto that any important announcements (Bob was hired as our new CTO!) or even break it down by team (IT: Joanne’s going away party is in the cafeteria on the 4th floor) and you can pass along non-critical news in a timely fashion. If you’re a big cooperation, you can add on things for meetings people can’t attend (Missed the big meeting? Download Jane’s talk about DR!).
Cousin Dan does training foo, so his questions revolved around why someone would want to use this for training. You don’t. Maybe you’d want to make it so people can download the recording of someone’s speech and listen to it on the way home, but to be honest, if I don’t do it at my desk, it ain’t happening. And maybe you’d want to have an audio ‘welcome to Hell, here’s your accordion’ thing, but again, I don’t see why.
The only practical purpose might be a walking tour, like those old ones where you’d put a tape in and walk around being told ‘If you look to your self, you’ll see the Mona Lisa.’ Except the iPod would get stolen all the damn time.
Of course, if you’re training people in stupid things management does because it’s the newest buzzword, well…