For most of its (extremely brief) history, podcasting has primarily been an audio medium. When Apple introduced the video iPod last year, more and more video podcasts—or vid-podcast or vidcasts, or whatever they're called this week—began appearing. And you know small-form video is here to stay, because the porn industry is already embracing it.
But here at Slate, we've been thinking in another direction. For years now, publishers and technology companies have been desperately trying to come up with an eBook reading device people would actually buy. (Sony recently introduced the latest attempt.) Even though some e-readers have pleased critics, all the efforts to date have fizzled. I suspect none have come close to achieving the critical mass necessary to become a viable medium.
Well, if there's one device that doesn't have a critical mass problem, it's the iPod. Millions of us now have these stylish micro hard drives clipped to our belts or strapped to our arms, and each one (except the Shuffle) has an LCD screen that displays text. And now, millions of us also automatically download podcast files onto those devices every day. And, it turns out, podcast files can contain text that shows up on the iPod. Do you see where I'm going with this?
For the last several weeks, Slate editor June Thomas and I have been inserting the full text of "The Explainer" into each day's "Explainer" audio podcast. Last week, I asked listeners to try reading the text on their iPods and report back to us on how it works. Scores of people wrote in, and a large majority reported a good experience.
Margie from Austin was typical: "Hope you're able to continue. I can now enjoy your podcasts by reading them in boring meetings!"
Don't get me wrong—current models of the iPod are not designed as text readers, and that was noted by a number of our beta testers. Some found the text too small to read, others didn't like how they had to keep scrolling, and still others noticed that the text disappeared once the audio file was done playing. All true, although improvements may be coming on all fronts.
For one thing, the screens on the newer iPods are bigger and clearer (see the picture of text on a video iPod, which is about actual size). Plus, future video iPods will undoubtedly have even bigger screens—in fact, there's an Apple product announcement set for next week. …
If you'd like to try reading text on an iPod, go to our podcast page and subscribe to the iTunes feed of the "Explainer" podcast. Once you've downloaded the files, you'll need to push the iPod's center button a few times to get to the text, and then use the scroll wheel to move down.
We plan to keep putting text in the audio podcasts, and we may even try a text-only podcast in the near future (since June and I can only read so many features a day). Keep an eye on this space.