Last week I outlined the history of the podcast. I noticed that previous attempts to launch podcast-like services as organized business ventures had failed. Podcasting only took on its modern form around 2005, when it launched as an open-source method of embedding audio files in RSS feeds. The first user-side podcast service was the personal project of an ex-MTV host. These observations raise the question: why did podcasting emerge outside of the corporate sphere?
This week we’ll investigate the emergence of podcasting by looking at it as a disruptive technology. What is a disruptive technology? NPR recently interviewed Ryan Knutson, who wrote on the subject for the Wall Street Journal. He explains that “disruptive technologies… begin as very inferior, and they’re only for people that want to get stuff that’s cheap but not necessarily a very good quality… But then that service begins to improve, and it improves to the point that the technology is actually the mainstream…”. In the interview, he focuses on WiFi-only smart phones as a disruptive technology. In many ways they are clearly an inferior product to cellular smart phones; it is inconvenient and difficult to search out WiFi networks. However, with the expansion of WiFi networks, they are becoming increasingly usable (especially for urban dwellers). He believes that this WiFi-only paradigm, especially in light its compatibility with existing hardware, could pose a serious threat to the existing cellular industry.
Like WiFi phones, the early podcast experience was vastly inferior to alternative sources of audio programming or, more broadly, entertainment and news. Before the advent of mobile devices, podcasts couldn’t be updated on the go. Getting new content required corded syncing with a home computer. Additionally, as we saw last week, early podcast pickings were slim. These and other usability issues restricted the medium’s popularity. However, over the past decade these issues have been resolved and, it could be argued, podcasting has become superior to traditional radio in some regards. For example, it is more convenient to scroll through libraries than scan the airwaves. Additionally, podcasting allows for more content choice and flexible listening than traditional radio.
So how does this address our questions about the history of podcasting? Perhaps, like WiFi-only phones, podcasts were not a high enough quality product to be lucrative. However, both of these did draw a not-insignificant group of users who were willing to settle for the inferior products. Over a period of clearly-inferior existence, the technology and infrastructure behind both concepts was bettered. Eventually, the quality of user experience with WiFi phones and podcasts improved to the point that they gained enough mainstream popularity to be commercially lucrative. In the last year, Google is in the process of debuting a primarily WiFi cellular-like service and the podcast market experienced “mega-hit” in popular culture: Serial. The important observation we make by viewing podcasts as a disruptive technology is that over a significant period of time, it was too inferior to be commercially viable but still existed among a very small subset of “cheapskate” consumers who were willing to tolerate its shortcomings.
I plan on continuing the discussion on podcasts next week, so keep an eye out for that.