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Know It All: Podcasting

Published in Geare magazine, Issue #33, 2005

As a long-time science fiction reader, I find the word Pod -- and even more so Podcasting -- quite creepy. But in fact it has nothing to do with invasions of body snatchers, but with Apple's now ubiquitous and business-saving device, the iPod.

Until recently, the iPod distinguished itself by being only available with a huge storage capacity for MP3 audio. Even the early models sported a 5GB hard disk, which was good for some 80 hours of MP3 music recorded at the normal 128kbps rate. Apple left the solid-state players to other companies, until it introduced the iPod Shuttle last year.

Now iPods, and iPod-like players, are available in capacities up to 60GB (over 1,000 hours). That provides room for more than just music. Though a kind of time warp, the MP3 player is now becoming a carrier for good old fashioned radio, but radio with a difference.

Instead of having to be within reception range, and listening to your radio programs of interest according to the radio station broadcast schedule, you can choose your time and location.

Of course, many radio stations (and other sources of audio) have been available via the Internet for years. But they require you to be plugged in because they use streaming audio. Streaming audio can't be downloaded as a convenient file to be played back later at your convenience. It delivers packets of Internet audio in real time, just fast enough to be played back during the download, and then destroys the data. Want to listen again? Then you have to connect and play it back from the Internet again.

Podcasting differs in that the audio files are typically in MP3 format and are downloaded intact. If you have a broadband connection, the download is much faster than real time. And you can play it back whenever you like.

And -- here's where the iPod comes in -- it can be downloaded onto your portable MP3 player and you can listen on the train to work, while you're taking a stroll this lovely Spring morning, or whenever else it suites you. Because the files are MP3, you can do pretty much anything you like with them (MP3 does not have any built-in Digital Rights Management restrictions, although you should always respect copyright of course.)

Der, you might say, so what's new? The only difference between free online music and Podcasting is the content. Certainly there is that. Most Podcasting is talk radio, not music, otherwise there'd be copyright problems. But that's not the only difference.

The real difference is that your computer software can monitor your favourite Podcast Web sites and automatically download your preferred programs whenever there's a new one. This is thanks to RSS*, which is a standardised notification feature on many Web sites. Once it's downloaded to your computer, another feature automatically sychronises your iPod with the new content.

Oddly, as I write, the only software supplied with an MP3 player that supports the automated features of Podcasting is Apple's own iTunes, which of course only works with Apple iPods. The latest version can monitor RSS feeds, automatically download the programs you like and update your iPod.

But the users of iRiver and Creative Zen players and the like aren't really left out in the cold. If you properly register your player with Windows Media Player in Windows XP, then you can download the iPodder software from www.ipodder.org and it will perform the same function.

Expect to get a lot more playtime from the talking heads that you've downloaded than you do from music. Many of these programs are encoded at 64kbps, doubling the effective capacity of your MP3 player's hard drive.

* What's RSS mean? It has been variously called by its developers 'RDF (Resource Description Framework) Site Summary', 'Rich Site Summary' or 'Really Simple Syndication'. Do yourself a favour. Just call it RSS.

© 2002-2009, Stephen Dawson