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Apple pushes Podcasts through iTunes

Devils seen dancing in details

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"Podcasting goes mainstream", announced Apple on Tuesday, with the launch of version 4.9 of its iTunes music jukebox software - at the same time as upgrading and simplifying its iPod (but not iPod mini) line by giving them all colour screens and the ability to show album cover artwork or photos.

The "white iPods" now come in just two sizes, 20GB and 60GB, priced at £209 and £299 (prices inc VAT). Gone is the 30GB iPod Photo model, no doubt to resurface as the lower end in a year or so. The flash-based 1GB iPod shuffle drops in price to £89; iPod minis remain untouched.

It's another careful move by Apple, which retains a dominant position in the MP3 player market. Expectations of an upgrade to the iPod shuffle to a 2GB model (perhaps with a screen) and larger capacities on the iPod mini appear overdone. Clearly, Apple is not rushing to overhaul product lines while its rivals keep fighting among themselves for market share.

The new iPods will also have "an easy to use Podcast menu, including bookmarking within a Podcast and the ability to display Podcast artwork in colour."

Ah yes, podcasts. Steve Jobs pre-announced that iTunes would support the playback of the meanderings of random people - sorry, "the next generation of radio" according to Jobs - at May's D: All Things Digital conference. And now it's come to pass, with the newest version of iTunes, which includes a "Podcasts" button that is second down in the list, below the user's main Library. That means Apple is rating it more important than the Party Shuffle feature, internet radio stations *and* the iTunes Music Store, if the ordering of those buttons means anything.

Click the button and you're taken to the iTunes Music Store, where a little nook offers the chance to subscribe with one click to any or all of hundreds of podcasts. Anyone can get their own podcast added, through another one-click process that will lead to an Apple team (size unknown) checking out your would-be podcast.

The devil though is in the detail, and we think there's a lot of detail to be worked through here. First, being an iTunes podcast might be more blessing than curse. If even a sizeable proportion of the millions of iTunes users tune into a site, it'll get Slashdotted – because Apple isn't hosting these podcasts, just providing a symlink to the original. Bandwidth busting ahoy!

Secondly, how can Apple be sure that the caffeine-fuelled progenitors of mid-morning mumbling aren't trying to be DJs and playing loads of songs (aka "copyrighted material")? Answer: it can't. Stan Ng who once had the unhappy job of being Apple's worldwide product marketing director for the Cube but is now happily installed as WWPMD for the iPod, said: "There will be a self-regulatory aspect; listeners can click a link to report that something's offensive or infringing." Apple might dodge this bullet, since it's only providing a link, rather than hosting infringing stuff.

But even so that leads us to the third: what about podcasts in different languages or from different cultures which exhort people to nastiness? It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that someone in Baghdad might want to make a podcast and want it to get the widest possible audience. (Think Bin Laden.) Is anyone apart from the spooks going to recognise it? Or what about podcasts that are legal in one country (because of American's First Amendment) but illegal in another (say, because it libels someone in the UK)? There's huge potential for Apple to get caught up in legal rows, even without hosting the content.

The Demon ruling might force it to remove in the UK a link to a podcast in the UK that would be legal in the US.

And finally, what about all the money? Wasn't this upgrade going to turn podcasts into digital banknote presses?

Sorry, folks. At least for now, Apple is showing the price of all podcasts as "free". But the technology clearly exists to start charging, since it's coming to you through the iTunes Music Store. Mr Ng wouldn't confirm or deny this, only saying that Apple "doesn't have any announcements on that aspect today".

Afternote: presently the most subscribed podcast is the BBC's News page. In fact of the top ten, four are from the BBC (In Our Time, the Today programme, and From Our Own Correspondent). So much for the grassroots, hmm?®

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