I was glad to hear that Marco Arment is making a podcast app, but even more pleased that Marco plans to "dramatically simplify" Overcast.

Podcast apps need to address three core areas:

  • discovery;
  • downloading; and
  • playback

That may sound simple but when you consider the technical complexities involved with downloading large files via RSS, coupled with the design challenges created by the myriad of use cases, crafting a technologically solid, user-friendly app is tough. Every podcast app I have tried ended in frustration.

We need a fresh approach. One focused more on content than file management. To that end, here are my two cents on what I would like to see in a next-generation podcast app.

Discovery

Podcast apps cannot access the podcast area of the iTunes Store. Consequently, most podcast apps implement their own in-app version of a podcast store. Although discovery is an important, recreating the podcast storefront is a big undertaking for a feature that is only used occasionally.

Instead of a store, I want smarter search that hides complexity behind a search box. Let me search based on metadata parameters like title, category, network, guest and host. Bonus points for a search box that can parse podcast URLs directly (including Huffduffer feeds) and a "subscribe" bookmarklet for Safari and Chrome.

I discover new podcasts through RSS, Twitter and other online sources far more often than from the iTunes Store. Why bloat an app with with code to support an infrequently-used feature? On the few occasions that I want to browse podcasts to discover new shows, iTunes itself suffices.

Downloading

I never stream podcasts. Marco is smart to sidestep this world of pain. Too many podcast apps fail to deal with dropped or weak data connections adequately. Waiting for a stream to start is maddening, especially when there is no indication of when the stream might begin and a show that does start is apt to get stuck in buffering hell as you move in and out of good mobile coverage. Downloading is better. The podcast is either ready or it is not, eliminating much of the frustration.

Also, I do not want to subscribe to every podcast to which I listen. Let me download one-off podcasts. I already subscribe to a long list of favorite podcasts. But sometimes I hear of a particularly great episode of another podcast -- maybe it's the topic I am particularly interested in or the guest. Whatever the reason, too many existing podcast apps let you stream one-off podcasts, but require you to subscribe to download an episode. I want to be able to download podcasts one at a time or subscribe.

Playback

I listen to podcasts walking to work, mowing the lawn, running and in the car. The common thread is that I'm usually on the go and focused on something else while I listen. I want to get into my podcast app fast, start a podcast and go.

Far too many existing podcast clients have tiny touch targets that are hard to hit on the go. Many other apps have a confusing array of buttons for things like sleep timers and other features that I seldom use that distract from the core playback functionality. I have also had podcast apps that when closed immediately after playback started would pause the podcast requiring me to go back into the app, restart it and wait a few beats before putting my iPhone in my pocket.

Any podcast app should be dominated by a play/pause button that is easy to tap. Play/pause should also work consistently well on the lock screen and in Control Center, which not all do. It should also be obvious how much time is left on a podcast whether I am in a playback view or looking at a list of podcasts. A or two point circle around the playback button that gives you a rough idea of where you are in a podcast is too hard to see. I want to know if I have time to finish or tell at a glance whether I stopped a podcast with a minute or two left because I decided to skip the outro.

I am encouraged by Marco's desire to keep the focus of Overcast narrow. By taking a simplified, opinionated approach, Overcast will not be for everyone. But that is ok. Apps that try to be everything to everyone also end up shortchanging and disappointing everyone. Marco may limit his audience initially, but his approach will give him a solid foundation on which to build.

I believe we are at an inflection point for podcasting. Since their inception, podcasts have appealed to a niche geek crowd as demonstrated by the over-abundance of tech-related shows. Podcast apps to date have reflected this audience -- feature heavy, fiddly apps that require too much time and attention.

As podcasters have broadened their audiences, the focus of podcast apps should shift away from content management and toward the content itself. Overcast may lose some geeks for its lack of certain features, but I expect that what it loses in geeks will be more than made up by growing the audience for podcasts.