A podcasting device?

We normally don’t make much room in MDJ for iPod-related items other than those affecting Apple’s financial situation. MDJ and MWJ are about the Macintosh, not about the iPod or about Apple Computer generally (excepting Apple’s corporate health). However, people scoping out new devices still constantly ignore the principles that made the iPod a smash hit.

Today, Dave Winer touches on two while quoting analyst Michael Gartenberg on what an iPod-like device designed specifically for podcasts should look like. It’s hard not to love Winer’s gung-ho attitude; the first thing we’d ask is “what’s the last successful consumer device spec’d out by any analyst?” Analysts tend to argue that future devices should be the best parts of old devices plus some kind of magic new pixie dust to make them “better.” Individuals and small groups do the real innovation. Nonetheless, Dave says:

Since we agree that it should have built-in wifi capability, why should it have USB? USB may be a little faster, but if I can save money and space by only having one communication interface, then I’m going that way. I don’t see myself pushing content from a desktop or laptop to the device, I see it downloading on its own over wifi

Various clueless people have been calling for the iPod to have Bluetooth or Wi-Fi capability since it was released. It wasn’t going to happen, but it may in the next year? Why? Battery life. The first iPods had a realistic battery life of 6-8 hours if you avoided battery-draining options like shuffle play and constant backlighting. Thanks to advances in battery technology, Apple is now claiming audio playback time of up to 20 hours on a full charge (or up to 6.5 hours of video playback), or up to 24 hours for an iPod Nano. That’s approaching the levels where you could get 10 or more hours of playback with the constant battery drain of a radio transmission, either to Bluetooth headphones or to find a Wi-Fi network. It would still require you to think carefully, though – if you leave Wi-Fi on while not intending to connect to anything, you’d be draining the battery in a constant search for a Wi-Fi network that you don’t intend to use.

Winer may not see why to put a USB port on such a device, but it would require a way to configure itself without a network. He lives in Berkeley and has lived in other major cities where comprehensive free-or-cheap Wi-Fi is taken for granted. Most of the world does not – once most people go jogging or start the commute, they have no network available until they return to home or office, and even that network may be modem-based and very slow. A USB port allows for traditional desktop-based loading of content, and as Winer may not have remembered, for charging the battery. When you can combine both control and power into an industry-standard connector, it’s a clear win. Gartenberg is correct in that making a new proprietary connector is a bad idea, and there’s little reason to put in a dumb power port when a smart USB port takes the same space and provides many more capabilities.

The second thing?

I do think I’m going to have to tell it what to subscribe to over the interface, the podcast discovery mechanism really has to be on a system with a rich user interface. Wifi has plenty of bandwidth for that kind of communication.

The key lesson of the iPod is that jamming a lot of controls onto a pocket-sized device is a bad bad bad bad tragically bad idea. The first lesson of the iPod is that you don’t try to use its four buttons and a scroll wheel to load or manage content on the device. You use iTunes for that, since it has a huge screen and the resources of your entire computer to make that task easier.

A device that can find and download podcasts on its own is a fine idea, but how do you subscribe to a new podcast that you know about? Does anyone really want to have to navigate Web sites or enter URLs on a pocket-sized device that should be optimized for playback? Gartenberg says he doesn’t want “syncing” because he can just drag and drop stuff to a standard device, but the market hasn’t really embraced that solution, has it?

A Wi-Fi interface means such a device could automatically update podcasts on its own, perhaps discarding old or already-heard episodes by rule to save space as new episodes come in. But it seems silly to imagine anyone investing big bucks in a device that ignores the lessons of the iPod solely to stamp “podcast” all over everything. Such a device could succeed in its niche not by being more complicated, but by improving upon the strange iPod-iTunes podcast support. Wi-Fi and automatic updating is a cool start, but not if that’s its only advantage and it’s harder to use than an iPod. It would have to be as simple as the iPod-iTunes combination, with more features for podcast listeners (and viewers?). Configuring Wi-Fi on a tiny screen won’t ever meet that burden.