iPod, Podcasts and your Car

The importance of making metadata make human sense.

Like many, I use iTunes to sync my podcasts onto my iPod so I can listen to in the car. Mostly technology related podcasts. Unfortunately circumstances brought upon by both iTunes itself and the poor metadata management conspire to make this very difficult.

Talk-style podcasts are different than most in that you tend not to listen to them over and over like you do a music playlist. Now when you are in your car, you need to be looking at the road. There are a couple of problems with podcasting and the highway.

First, the metadata accuracy problem. The podcasts typically “acquire” mispellings on things like the podcast name, and there is no way to get to a date sorted (or reverse date sorted) list of the podcasts you listen to one by one. Some of the smarter podcasts follow a naming convention, such as “MyCoolCast #0012 – Nov 10”, so a natural sort order provides more or less what you would expect.

Second, the metadata in iTunes vis-a-vis play counts and “listened to” bit is severely broken. The ideal situation would be to have a Smart playlist that would provide you with the podcasts you haven’t listened to, right? Well, that would be perfect if the play count stuff worked. But as it turns out it doesn’t.

This morning I tried using the smart playlist to create something that would only show the podcasts I have not yet listened to, so I’m not a driving hazard when a podcast ends. However, there is no filter for the listened to bit. I thought, well, I can just add a “play count is greater than 0” filter, under the assumption that if I set the “listened to bit” on the podcasts I had already gone through before (sometimes I skip the ‘cast because it’s boring or I heard everything but the trailing music) it would move the play count to 1 automatically for me. Alas, no go. Worse yet, there is no way (other than editing the library files directly) to change the play count manually, and there seems to be a threshold before which the iPod won’t increase the Play count flag. I don’t actually want to delete the podcasts (I’m a bit packrat), I just want it off that particular “while driving” list.

So it is impossible (or at least harder than what a software engineer can manage in a few minutes) to create a playlist for the podcasts you haven’t yet listened to. There would be a couple of solutions for this, which Apple could implement:

  1. Make the Already listened to flag also set the Play count to 1. This would require no changes on the Smart Playlists
  2. Add the filter for already listened to to the Smart playlists

Without this, I keep finding myself just switching to regular talk radio so I don’t have to be a road hazard.

Now this illustrates how important metadata is, and how humans relate concepts in ways the computer can’t. A lesser implementer pretends to be smarter than the rest of us and says something like “but it’s not correct, they’re two different data elements”. An implementer who cares about the human aspect of metadata goes ahead and implements something like #1 above (maybe with a dialog box asking if it’s ok and a checkbox for “don’t ask me this again”). Note that he doesn’t do it because it’s correct, but because it is what people are likely to expect. Technology is made for humans. I have high hopes for Apple in that they seem to understand this more than other companies, but with this – “you’re making me nervous”.

Metadata is frustrating like that. It’s not typically visible, it has rules that are specific to the business domain, and when it goes wrong is frustrating for the user. As our hard disks get bigger and bigger and we start storing more and more stuff, the metadata will become more and more important, and issues such as the human aspect and expectations of metadata will become more and more crucial for the success of the underlying platform that manages that metadata, whether it be iTunes, TiVo or any other content management product.