Patents Pondered: Personalized Podcasts to Stream Straight to the iPhone?
"Marimba" shatters the early morning silence. Groggy, you fumble for your iPhone and "slide to unlock", ending the alarm. A cloudy, gloomy day greets you as you skip the weather and start on your email. In the background, your iPhone begins to stream the morning news. Not all of it and not all from one source, just your favorites. Just what you'd previously setup in iTunes Podcast Creator.
Sports and local highlights -- minus the crime news that's too harsh for your morning mellow -- flow one from the next, scraped while you slept from CNN, ABC, BBC, CBC, Comedy, and all the independent, niche podcasts you'd favorite'd. The fuzzy-logic of Apple's servers matched your criteria as closely as possible while still filling the 60 min. time slot you'd set up. And once collected, assembled it and pushed it out to your iMac, where iTunes made it available immediately for streaming over WiFi right to your iPhone.
Today, however, you're running late and don't even have time to sync before heading out the door. But since your iPhone can access your iMac's streaming, custom-podcasts over the blazingly fast 4G LTE network, you don't even notice the transition from local to wide area network as your door closes and you hit the street. You just keep on listening as Jon Stewart makes fun of whos-that-president for the umpteenth time. And as you jump on the train, with a couple quick taps, your iMac is updated, your iTunes Podcast Creator is adjusted, Stewart is out of tomorrow's mix, and iPhone lover Stephen Colbert is back in.
The good-looking passenger beside you comments on the awesome sounding custom podcast you're rocking. Smiling, you tap another button and peer-to-peer it right on over, just as the train pulls out and the day starts to look ever so much brighter...
Sound more like a multi-media dream than current reality? Well, some of Apple's newest patents look like they might be trying to make this particular dream come true. Read on for what just might be the future of iTunes and truly mobile media...
Previously we've covered Apple's TV related patents, including peripherals for watching TV directly on the iPhone, and a much more ambitious concept to free us from the Big Media networks with remote, iPhone-controlled personal video recording (PVR). Arguably the Apple Remote launched along with the App Store was the first salvo in the battle for next generation TV domination, where the iPhone/Apple TV/iTunes triple play faces competition from other integrated consumer electronics companies like Sony with their PS3/PSP combo and Microsoft with their Windows Media Center/Xbox 360/Zune/Windows Mobile smorgasbord.
But no matter how significant it may seem today, the TV battleground is not the Media war, not when content is moving increasingly online and on demand.
The engine behind what could be one of Apple's Next Big Things can be found in a recent patent filing for dynamically generated media. Today, iTunes provides a massive amount of free audio and video podcasts, but these podcasts are supplied in "blocks" by the content creator, and while some are specifically focused, like the iPhone blog's Phone Different podcast, others are far more general, like TWiT's MacBreak Weekly, or even This Week in Tech.
So, let's say you're only interested in iPhone news, and really only in App Store coverage. Right now, that's a problem:
"Unfortunately, however, a subscriber may desire a podcast that is somewhat different from the available podcasts," wrote patent inventor Ellis Verosub. "In many cases, a subscriber is not interested in the entire pre-established podcast but would prefer to modify the podcast in some manner. However, there is currently no way for a subscriber to alter the content within a podcast."
What Apple proposes to solve this problem is a robust back-end solution where not only could you subscribe to podcasts are usual, but tell the server precisely which subjects you are interested in, and have only those segments which include that subject individually packaged and delivered as a personalized podcast straight to your iTunes.
In typical Apple fashion, a simple set of controls would provide for popular or frequently used categories, as well as custom settings for more granular control. Bringing in the power of the iPhone and Apple's new Mobile WiFi Platform in general to this model makes it particularly exciting:
"In addition," Verosub added, "for management of podcasts, a client device or a portable media device can also be configured so that the podcasts are automatically maintained or discarded based on any of a number of different criteria. For example, the number of podcasts (or episodes thereof) being maintained could be limited and the oldest stored podcast can be deleted when more than the predetermined number of podcasts (or episodes thereof) is being stored."
Managing custom, on-demand podcasts via your iPhone is good. So is the aforementioned Remote App that lets you control iTunes and Apple TV via WiFi. But there's one piece still missing from this next generation media puzzle.
You have your personalized podcast in iTunes, but what if you don't have time to sync it over to your iPhone? What if you run out of storage space and just can't fit that last Olympic news roundup? What if you finish everything you'd previously synced and are desperate for just a half hour more? These situations are why many users (us included!) have been begging for the ability to stream content directly from iTunes to our iPhones. Luckily, it looks like Apple is working on this as well, according to another patent application, this time by David Heller and Thomas Mavrakakis:
"For instance, a personal computer can be turned on and connected to the Internet to enable a portable device to access the media items stored on the personal computer," Apple said, adding that the files could then delete themselves from the portable device once the user is done listening to or viewing them.
Interestingly, the patent also covers the ability to share not just with your own computer, but with other iPhone users in an almost Microsoft Zune-like manner:
"This type of communication can be referred to as peer-to-peer interaction. In this regard, one mobile device can communicate directly with another mobile device" or " to a plurality of other mobile devices," Apple said. "In the peer-to-peer environment, one mobile device can communicate with one or more other electronic devices (whether mobile or stationary) in the immediate vicinity. Data sharing can be performed when such communication is available."
What's In It For Them?
Free is great. In fact, our generation has become so entitled, we've come not only to expect everything for free, but to demand it. How can this be balanced with making sure creators are paid enough to keep them creating, and distributers have enough revenue to keep the pipes moving?
Alex Lindsay of This Week in Media often makes the point that the current advertising model is broken. Worse, audiences are starting to resent advertisers who interrupt programming with often disconnected and sometimes completely unrelated and irrelevant messaging. It bugs us.
Yet advertising as content, where the ad is either entertaining enough that we want to watch it (something Apple often does well), or informative enough we don't even think of it as a commercial. Lindsay gives the example of Tide, rather than just forcing us to watch another 30 second spot most of us could care less about, could make their own video podcast on how to get stains out of clothing. No overt advertising or product pushing; the hosts are merely using and demonstrating Tide and its effectiveness.
This could just as easily be a series of how-to's for iPhone users, just like Apple's more generic Quick Tips already serves OS X. And if iTunes is scraping Phone Different, MacBreak Weekly, This Week in Tech, GeekBrief.tv, Webbalert, Diggnation, and other podcasts for iPhone news, it could very easily -- and seamlessly -- integrate "advertising" content right in, complete with links to buy or subscribe to whatever is being demonstrated.
Podcasts revolutionized the mobile market, and the staggering amount of free, high-quality podcasts available via iTunes helped make the iPod. While Apple files many, many patents every year, and there's never any way of knowing which ones -- if any -- will filter down to actual products or services, this latest round of iTunes-related filings show an interesting and exciting direction for the future of the media, right here on our iPhones.