iOS 7 and the State of Podcast Apps

There was a period of time – between early 2011 and about two weeks ago – when I would tell anyone within hearing distance that Instacast was easily the best podcast app for iOS. No doubt about it.

Oh, I'd tried all the big names at some time or another, of course — Pocket Casts, Downcast, Stitcher Radio, and even Apple's own Podcasts. Though each was great in its own way, something kept me coming back to Instacast time and time again.

It was super easy to use, my subscriptions were synced between my iPhone and iPad with almost no issues1, and of course, it was easy on the eyes. In my mind, the other competitors had lost this battle a long time ago. I was an Instacast guy through-and-through.

And then iOS 7 happened.

Suddenly, the old dogs all seemed to learn new tricks at once. Within the span of a few days, most of the apps I just listed (with the exception of Stitcher Radio) released new updates that showed off completely overhauled UIs. I've been blown away by how inspired all the developers have become by iOS 7's design aesthetic.

Just to give you an idea, here's a before-and-after of Instacast:

Instacast Before & After

And here's Pocket Casts:

Pocket Casts Before & After

(Apologies for the low-quality images, I didn't have screenshots of the older versions so I just grabbed everything from Google Images and put it all together very quickly.)

Not only did these updates look drastically different, they also sported new kinds of functionality that had never been allowed by iOS previously — namely, the ability for new podcast episodes to automatically download in the background so that they're ready for you when you next open the app.

On top of that, we're already starting to see inspired new entrants in this arena — examples that immediately come to mind are David Smith's Pod Wrangler, which is simple but elegant, and something called Spigot that I haven't checked out yet outside of screenshots. Even Marco Arment will be getting in on the action soon with Overcast, and I expect many more to follow soon after.

And you know the funny thing? I'm not so sure Instacast is my favorite anymore. The playback controls cover up some of the podcast artwork, the advanced toolbar (which houses controls I never use, like playback speed and bookmarking) can no longer be hidden, and the cloud sync service no longer seems to work properly.

(As an aside, Pocket Casts has become surprisingly awesome with its latest update, and right now it's the one I find myself using most. If nothing else, at least its sync service does what it's supposed to do.)

The point is, I don't think I would necessarily call any of the current podcast apps the “best one” right now. They're all going through a phase of change and experimentation, like a kind of adolescence — all the kids are going through it, and there's no telling what the mature results will be like until the awkward phase is over. A painful analogy? Maybe, but I'm sticking with it.

Let's look at it another way. The iOS App Store is full of apps that could arguably be considered “the best” in their respective fields. Some will disagree with me on these examples, but bear with me:

  • Reeder is far and away the best RSS reader out there.

  • Tweetbot is the king of Twitter clients.

  • Day One cornered the journaling market.

But with podcast apps, there is no longer any clear heir to the throne.

It may sound like I'm being negative here, but really I view all of this as a good thing. The way I see it, the slate has been wiped clean, the playing field has been leveled, and it's really anybody's game at this point. There's no better time for old players and newcomers alike to stake a claim on this market, or maybe even redefine what a podcast app could be.

I think Marco put it best when he announced Overcast (emphasis added):

“John Gruber described Twitter clients in 2009 as a “UI design playground”:

“Twitter is such a simple service overall, but look at a few screenshots of these apps, especially the recent ones, and you will see some very different UI designs, not only in terms of visual style but in terms of layout, structure, and flow. …

Less obvious is the fact that different people seek very different things from a Twitter client. … There is so much variety because various clients are trying to do very different things. Asking for the “best Twitter client” is like asking for the “best shirt”.”

Since then, weather apps have also clearly become UI playgrounds. I believe podcast apps are, too.

As a fan of podcasts, I'm extremely excited to see what comes out of all this upheaval in the marketplace. This is where I think some of the greatest innovation on the App Store is about to happen, and you can be sure I'll be watching closely.

If nothing else, the next several months are certainly going to be interesting.

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  1. There were occasions where the sync service would cause episode duplicates to appear on each device, but that's about it.