Monthly Archives: May 2013

Windows Phone 8 improves podcast support to Windows Phone 7 levels

OK, so that’s a really quite inflammatory headline, for a feature change that actually has me really excited, because I can finally use a feature of my phone that I used to love very much.

TL;DR – New version of the Windows Phone for Desktop App. Get it, it puts podcast support for MP3 files (rather than web hosted) back in.

Podcasts

But not really podcasts

As soon as I start talking about podcasts, most of you are either happily thinking about, or dismissing out of hand, the concept of a few people talking into a microphone about some topic they care about very deeply. I don’t really enjoy those kinds of podcasts, because I feel I can get the same kind of information more quickly and without the fanboy stylings from written material like blogs and the intertubes.

So, no, I don’t listen to podcasts.

But I do listen to something that has a lot of similar features to podcasts. I’ll call them “Sequential Long Audio Files” or SLAFs.

Not really music, either

Episodic in nature, and sequential in that it generally pays to listen in the right order, audiobooks and radio drama are examples of SLAFs – audio files that don’t behave like the typical “Music” that phones are generally designed to play.

Music files start from the beginning every time you play them. If you break away from one music track to listen to another, and then come back, you aren’t upset that it lost your place.

With the exception of concept albums and mix tapes, you don’t tend to need to listen to music files in any particular order.

OK, also the exception of symphonic music, opera, musical theatre, etc. There’s probably a lot of music that people want to listen to in sequence and with the ability to break away to another audio file and then return to the same point once you get back.

But not podcasts

Podcasts are already in this area, and they’re well supported on the Windows Phone 8 platform. So, there’s little need to improve in that feature, says the guy who acknowledges he never listens to podcasts.

What’s not been supported well – in Windows Phone 7 or at all in Windows Phone 8 – is the type of audio file exemplified by audio books, radio drama, symphonic music, opera, and so on. The SLAFs.

Here’s some differences between SLAFs and regular podcasts:

  • You already have the files – they’re not on the web to be subscribed to
  • The files are sequenced by ID3 tags – rather than XML you fetch from a web site
  • Also in ID3 tags, AlbumArt that indicates a thumbnail for the series – rather than an XML file
  • Often, the sequence is finite, there’s an expectation that you will listen to all six (or however many) episodes (chapters, lieder, etc) and then be done with that set – rather than a podcast which may start at “episode 1”, but entices you back for “another great show next week” until such time as the audience and advertising dwindles to the point where the power (and the podcast) gets pulled. This means that “subscribing” makes no sense in sequential audio.

I’m sure there are other differences too.

He’s said this before

Yes, I’ve complained about podcast support on Windows Phone before, over and over and over again.

In Windows Phone 7, I wanted a few simple features added.

In Windows Phone 8, they took the entire feature set away. Podcasts now had to come from a URL and be subscribed to. Great for traditional podcasts, but intolerable for SLAFs. Yes, I could have written a web service that turns a SLAF album into a podcast series, but I just didn’t have the time.

Now, the feature has been brought back – and through a delivery of a new version of the Windows Phone app for desktop. This is what replaced the Zune software. Which really wasn’t all that bad.

So, how do we do this?

Step by step.

  1. Install the new version of the Windows Phone app for desktop.
  2. Now run it.
    image
  3. Click on “pc”, if you need to. Note that, because this is a “metro” interface, “PC” is in lower case, despite all English style guides.
    image
  4. Click on “podcasts”
    image
  5. Check the podcasts you want to put on the phone, and hit “Sync” to send them there.

What if I didn’t see any podcasts?

Yes, that will happen, if you haven’t marked any items as podcasts, or put them into the sync folders.

You see that thing that says “Add or remove folders”?

This is what allows you to pick the folders into which you will put your SLAFs.

Click that, and you’re presented with a familiar-looking dialog:

image

In Windows Phone 7 and the Zune software, you also had to go and change the genre on your SLAFs to “Podcast”.

I am pleased as punch to say that you don’t have to do that any more. Leave the genre what it was. Not that the phone will make any use of it, allow you to search, sort or filter by it, or in any way act as if you’ve done anything better than setting the genre to “Podcast”. But it makes me feel good to know that I don’t have to assault my files to make them work on the Windows Phone.

What’s left to do?

Clearly the feature isn’t finished – there’s some work to do in the phone to improve support.

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As you can see from the image to the left, there’s a whole lot of grey where there ought to be images from the AlbumArt ID3 tag in each of these series.

I can’t help but think that sometimes these titles are going to lose something important off the end. Radio shows like to have incredibly long titles, and I’m sure that something like “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series 2” is going to be truncated so that I can’t tell which series I’m listening to. A little more wrap, possibly a marquee-style scrolling display, should fix this where it makes sense to do so.

Ordering – or sequencing – of episodes seems to still leave a little to be desired. It seems that the series will only play in sequence if the files are date-stamped. It would be nice if the podcast tool would simply read the ID3 tags for “track number” and/or “part of set” rather than rely on file dates, which could simply work off when you downloaded or ripped these files. [Note that I advocate the legal use of such technologies to space-shift or time-shift recordings to which you have purchased, or otherwise legitimately own, rights to possess and listen.]

But I can now listen happily to my radio shows – without the radio – and without the Interwebs – as if they were podcasts (though they aren’t).

Gin & tonic all round.

So, thanks and cheers, then, to all at Microsoft involved in bringing this feature back.

Now, if you don’t mind also making it better, that would be lovely.