Overcast and the Future of Podcasting

Samantha Bielefeld wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled "The Elephant in the Room". She raised many points, but there is one in particular that I hadn't considered before:

What impact does a free Overcast have on the podcast client market?

Marco's stated objective is to protect podcasts from "Big Money". From his post “Pragmatic app pricing”:

“Podcasts are hot right now. Big Money is coming.

“[…]

“They’re coming with shitty apps and fantastic business deals to dominate the market, lock down this open medium into proprietary “technology”, and build empires of middlemen to control distribution and take a cut of everyone’s revenue.

“That’s how you make Big Money. And it usually works.

“[…] I don’t know if Overcast stands a chance of preventing the Facebookization of podcasting, but I know I’m increasing the odds if my app is free without restrictions.”

Marco believes that by making Overcast free, he has a chance of getting a critical mass of podcast listeners, thereby preventing a takeover by Big Money.

Is he right? If so, is it worth the potential collateral damage to the rest of the podcast client ecosystem?

That depends on what you think the future of podcasting is.

A Status-Quo Podcasting Future

The assumption in Marco's attempt to protect podcasting is that it continues to develop much as it has. Podcasts will continue to be between 30 minutes and three hours (with some exceptions). They will primarily be ad-sponsored, not based on subscriptions. More people will continue to produce them and look for distribution.

The largest threat to podcasting is a Big Money-backed walled garden. One client gets large enough to entice all producers to not only make their shows available within it, but to so dominate the space that there's no need to distribute outside of it. Keeping Overcast free with a substantial user base will incent producers to maintain public feeds and prevent this future.

But what if this isn't how the future plays out?

Music: A Partial History

To understand how podcasting might evolve, let's start by look at the relatively recent history of recorded music.

We begin with the album, first vinyl, then tape, and finally compact disc. These were all fundamentally the same: They sold a package of songs that were related in some way for a single price. No matter how many songs you were interested in or liked, you had to buy the whole collection (with minor exceptions that don't matter for this discussion).

Then came digitization and the internet. Suddenly, if you wanted music, you no longer had to buy a whole collection. You could get just the song you want. First, you would just torrent it; later, you would buy it through iTunes.

Further, the playing field was leveled. Anyone (practically) could publish their music and sell it. Just about anyone could get in iTunes, and they could sell direct through their own site. Any MP3 player could play any song. iTunes dominated thanks to the iPod, but it was a fundamentally open system that ensured access to most.

The album had been unbundled.

Then the streaming services rose up. They provided tremendous convenience: All (practically) of the music in the world for a monthly fee. Storage space on your device was no longer an issue. Algorithms in addition to humans started providing suggestions, helping you find music you otherwise wouldn't have heard.

Suddenly, there are walled gardens. Getting rights to all the music in the world is a large and costly undertaking. As usage picked up, you increasingly have to be in those systems to be relevant (with a few extremely popular exceptions). Getting in is harder, and there are fewer options to bypass it. Convenience has trumped openness.

Music has been re-bundled, but in a completely new way with completely new benefits.

TV: A Partial History

I'm going to talk about one aspect of television I don't hear much discussion about, but I think is very relevant: Late night talk shows.

Of the late night talk show hosts, Conan O'Brien is the only one I've ever really enjoyed. That show is actually a variety of shorter bits and segments, bundled together in a single episode. To watch it, I've had to watch, and eventually record, his entire show.

Then came the rise of streaming video. Shows like Conan were streamed whole through the network's website so you could watch when and where you wanted. The rise of YouTube led to the breakup of the show into its component bits and segments. Suddenly, you could watch only those parts of the show that interested you.

Here's the dirty little secret: I only like the monologue and bits portions of the show. The interviews and musical guests have never done anything for me. I'm guessing most people are similar. They like parts of the show, but probably not all of it.

If I went through the effort of finding a way to watch the whole show, inertia would cause me to watch the whole show. YouTube changed that equation. I have my choice of streaming the whole show or just bits of it. It is now easier just to watch the parts of the show I find interesting. In fact, I don't even watch the whole monologue anymore, just the jokes that pop as the funniest ones. Everyone can watch just the parts of the show they enjoy most.

The show itself became unbundled.

Neil Cybart talks frequently of the re-bundling that is yet to come, providing personalized video recommendations based on viewer interests. It's easy to see a future in which the unbundled segment of shows like late night talk shows are recommended, much like music is now, alongside other shows that can be broken into pieces, full-length television shows and movies. That day is not yet here, however.

An Alternate Possible Podcasting Future

If we apply these lessons to podcasting, what might an alternate future look like?

Podcasts are much like late night talk shows: They're a collection of segments, often loosely related. Even in shows I very much enjoy, often only some segments are of interest to me. A system (let's call it PodRadio) has been created that breaks podcasts apart into its various segments and understands who is in those segments, what they discuss and how long they run. I can listen to just the segments that interest me.

Podcast shows are unbundled.

PodRadio has another feature though: It allows me to design "stations" or "shows" based on what I want to hear. "Give me all product reviews by John Siracusa." "Play all discussions of the Packers' last game." "Give me all discussions including John Gruber in the last week I haven't already listened to." "Give me all of Christina Warren's discussions about yesterday's Apple event." "Give me details about the latest agile conference."

PodRadio also incorporates a streaming music service. The one I listen to most plays Frank Sinatra, but for about five minutes every hour, it drops in a John Siracusa segment (Robot or Not? is perfect for this format). It gives me a chance to get up and stretch and give my mind a break. My second favorite is a Top 10 station that follows the song with the artist discussing it.

The convenience of this eliminates my time spent listening to podcasts outside of PodRadio. I pay a monthly subscription, and the revenue is shared among the music artists and podcasters based on what I listen to. All audio content of any relevance is on PodRadio, and I listen to more than ever.

Podcast shows are re-bundled, but in a completely new way with completely new benefits.

Overcast's Impact

Back to our original question: What impact does a free Overcast have on the podcast client market? It depends on which future comes to pass.

If the status quo prevails, Overcast will likely have a nice chunk of the premium market. I suspect it will strongly damage the paid premium client market. How could it not? Marco's own stats show that 80% of his users went with the free version of his crippled app. If you can get a fully-featured premium client for free, how many people will really pay for a client?

Marco might still achieve his primary goal though: He will likely get enough of the market to prevent any Big Money player from dominating, protecting podcasting as it exists.

But what if my alternate future comes to pass? As I was writing this, Google announced podcasts are coming to Google Play Music. The initial announcement sounds like steps in the direction I outlined (I wish I'd finished this piece sooner!). I think there's a good chance my vision of the future is close to the mark.

In that case, the impact of Overcast is likely muted but more damaging.

Podcasts and podcast clients as they exist today will likely continue to exist, they will simply be eclipsed by this new model (just as albums and MP3 players - software-based - still exist today, but are increasingly eclipsed by streaming singles and the software to support it).  However, since the market for a traditional podcast client doesn't grow substantially, a free Overcast likely significantly damages a small and minimally growing market.

Meanwhile, Big Money is likely to create PodRadio. Some day the algorithms, AI, and streaming music catalog will be broadly available to allow indies to attempt something like this (maybe). In the short term, though, this will take money. Big Money. That will need to build a walled garden to make this work.

Google is an obvious candidate that has already started, and Apple certainly could take a run at this. I wouldn't rule out Spotify making a play here either. People were confused when they added podcasts to the app recently. It makes more sense if you look at it in terms of a PodRadio-like future.

This is a future an indie is not likely to be able to create or stop. Not even one giving away their software.

Marco's right. Big Money is coming, and it will likely win. Overcast is likely to be the WinAmp of podcast clients.