Mon, 21 Feb 2005

An alternate history of podcasting

During the birth of podcasting, the excitement was about a new set of factors -- RSS enclosures, talk MP3s posted freely on the internet, iPods, software to glue these things together. In five years, though, the iPod will be as exciting as a toaster; RSS enclosures will be just one of many vectors for URLs of talk audio; the dominant form of talk MP3s will not be shows longer than 30 minutes, it will be clips.

If you needed to describe the landscape in terms of the story that exploded across the upper blogosphere in August 2004, words would fail you, because the things gluing it all together, then as now, will be hypertext, URIs, HTTP, and social customs.

What changed in August 2004?

Until that moment, the overwhelming majority of internet audio was still in the style established during the 90s bubble. The customers for this style were the television, radio, music, and movie businesses. The providers for this style were a few large players -- Microsoft, Real, Apple, Macromedia. This style featured proprietary, expensive, and user-hostile technology like URLs that changed constantly, Internet-Explorer-only HTML, and dedicated media servers like RealServer.

After the podcasting moment, internet standards became the basis. The customers were talkers making audio in their spare time with cheap hardware and existing software, the providers were hackers making tools in their spare time with low-cost tools.

If not for that change there would be no change at all. Podcasting would have no talkers if they needed Windows Media Server rather than Apache, and it would have no listeners if the old practice of obfuscating URLs was still followed. But Apache was nothing new this summer, and this begs the question of why podcasting happened then and not before.

There were two factors, neither of which had enough juice on its own.

One factor was that all the dominoes were ready -- consensus for web standards was overwhelming among developers, there were people skilled in the practice of audioblogging, blogging was a well known narrative frame. The other factor was that there was an excellent new name -- "podcasting" -- connecting the dominoes to a compelling current event, the iPod's peak as a cultural icon. When the upper blogosphere, in all its attention-deficit glory, jumped on the podcasting meme, it inspired talented and energetic people to become podcasters. While this very first generation of podcasters were telling themselves an origin story adopted from the upper blogosphere, they were accidentally doing all the right things to make the dominoes fall to their advantage.

The first generation did what it did based on features of the origin story --

  1. There was a story about the need to transfer files to an iPod. This story was false -- podcast listeners are overwhelmingly office workers or students using desktop computers. However, following this story got content makers to abandon the developer-hostile RTSP protocol and to embrace the user-friendly MP3 format.
  2. There was a story about feed formats like RSS being needed to pre-fetch large files. In reality download time had become a non-factor since the perception was established in the mid-90s, but few people knew it. Though the use of feed formats to control download times was pixie dust, it was just the right pixie dust to clear the perception that online audio was too slow to use.
  3. There was a story about RSS 2.0 enclosures being necessary to allow integration with blog readers, even though the most popular blog readers were (and are) web applications which can't do anything more with an enclosure link than they can with any other link. What blog readers really needed was an open format to free them from the quicksand (like ASX and RAM) that audio and video were trapped in before podcasting. It didn't matter whether the link was in an enclosure element, it was crucial that the link was in an open data format.

The podcasters did all the right things and more, despite having canon that made no sense. License metadata, for example, was not a part of the founding myth, yet podcasters embraced open licensing from the beginning because they needed it, had the street smarts to know they needed it, and had the chops to pick between open licenses.

The reason all this happened at that moment is because of the podcasters, but not for the reasons they thought. The people who created podcasting were early adopters, not just of RSS 2.0 feeds with enclosures pointing to talk MP3s, but also of web standards, and the need for web standards was the main thing holding back internet audio/video when podcasting came along in August 2004.

In five years, the things that defined podcasting during its birth in late summer of 2004 will be forgotten. Podcasters will not do 40-minute sets, they will not use feed formats any more than they will use HTML or playlist formats, they will consider the need to actively copy URLs to a disconnected device like an iPod astoundingly primitive. What will remain are the things that the first generation took for granted and yet, in reality, pioneered -- URLs, open wrapper formats, open protocols, open media formats, and open licensing.