The Open Road
Apple lit a campfire during the podcast winter.
When Spotify entered the podcast ecosystem in 2018 with a seemingly indiscriminate money cannon pointed in all directions, it started yet another fresh discussion on the death of RSS - a favorite topic of the tech industry every few years. API’s and streaming became the focus of everyone who was sharing in the boom because, of course that logged in, first party data was better, right? How could it not be?
Well, actually it wasn’t better. Fast forward to today and we’re in the midst of a podcast winter. The money cannon is out of powder. Acquisitions are nowhere to be found. And, first party streaming data has been exposed to be just as incapable of bringing mega-money into podcasting as RSS ever was. We seem to be back to square one, thankfully. Podcasting is basically the same as it ever was. But, we had to go through the ringer to get here.
During those heady, money drenched boom years, many people who were there at the beginning of podcasting (and one who actually created it) recommitted themselves to preserving it as it was originally built, and extending RSS with a new “podcast” namespace to allow for new features that aren’t locked behind any proprietary platform. This “Podcasting 2.0” project has been a labor of love by many since 2020. It now has many features and tags. But, the first one we developed (thanks to Buzzsprout) was an RSS tag to bring a transcript into a podcast episode so podcast apps could display it. That tag is what started the “podcast” namespace.
Last week, Apple announced that they were adding episode transcripts to the Apple Podcasts app, which comes pre-installed on every iPhone. Apple could have taken the typical megacorp approach to adding transcripts by choosing to simply auto-generate captions on the fly during playback and call it a day. Problem solved. But, they chose the harder path. They chose to respect podcaster’s choices by reading the Podcasting 2.0 <podcast:transcript> tag from the RSS feed also. By making this choice, they planted their flag firmly on the side of open, RSS based podcasting.
While Google (YouTube) and Spotify are doing the bare minimum of RSS metadata ingestion to get podcast content into their platforms, where it then ends up opaquely morphed into a platform branded streaming experience, Apple instead has showed that they are looking at RSS feeds as the future, not the past; a place where the next innovations of podcasting will occur via open collaboration. They even point developers to the podcast namespace Github repository - a clear decision to get others involved in the discussion, as they themselves have been.
The transcript feature the Apple Podcasts team built looks beautiful, as we’ve come to expect from Apple products. I can’t find a single thing to complain about. They nailed it. Other Podcasting 2.0 apps like Truefans and Podfriend have, of course, gone further and integrated the <podcast:person> tag information into the transcript speaker labels with gorgeous results. But, when it comes to simply building a feature on the <podcast:transcript> tag itself, Apple did it in a way we can all be proud of.
What all of this really means is that Apple Podcasts is a Podcasting 2.0 app now. And that has some very positive ramifications. Now, when people ask:
“I’ve heard about Podcasting 2.0. What is it?”
It’s a much simpler question to answer:
“Have you seen the transcript sheet in Apple Podcasts? That’s a Podcasting 2.0 feature.”
Podcasting 2.0 is simply a shorthand way to describe adding new features to RSS podcast feeds in an open, community focused way. And, Apple has done everyone in the open podcast ecosystem a giant favor by making the job of RSS evangelism we are all tasked with easier.
On the Android platform, users will soon be stuck with YouTube Music as the default podcast app - an app that doesn’t even have basic features like “mark as played” and new episode notifications, let alone chapters. It’s frankly, embarrassing. But, it’s what we’ve come to expect from streaming focused platforms. Living behind an avalanche of first party API data, ironically, can make you blind. I think Apple realizes that their market share is an important factor in the RSS ecosystem and have chosen to lean on that and keep us all from being drug into the podcasting stone age by these other platforms.
Will I switch to the Apple Podcasts app as my daily driver? No, I will continue to use 2.0 apps that deliver more bleeding edge features. I’m one of the crazy ones. But, Apple deserves a high five on this. They sent a clear message. With a single feature, they’ve established themselves as an actual advocate for RSS podcasting, and not just its hospice attendant. They lit a campfire during this podcast winter.