New Audible podcasting format – why bother?

I have recently started to take an interest podcasting again – I produced a few podcasts during the summer to dip my toes into podcasting but I had to stop when the soundcard on my PowerBook blew.

Recently, I have recorded a couple of my talks and podcast them with generous help from FrankP and NearFm and even more recently, Robert Scoble has agreed to let me record and podcast an interview I will do with him by phone tomorrow evening.

So I have been following the world of podcasting with increasing interest and was surprised to see a war breaking out there over the weekend!

The war is about what audio format to use in podcasts – traditionally the audio format has been mp3 files but a company called Audible has proposed a new .aa format. According to Mitch Ratcliffe (an Audible consultant), the main advantage of the .aa format seems to be that it is possible to audit how often they have been downloaded – this is, of course, important from a monetisation point of view! However, Mitch rather lost the head (and thereby the argument) when not everyone agreed with him.

As Michael Arrington put it:

Instead of embracing the bloggers that would normally talk about this, Mitch Ratcliffe (an Audible consultant) went on an unmitigated, unprovoked character assasination romp (with follow up attacks) against Dave Winer (â€?he’s willing to stealâ€?), Om Malik and others. This sure is an interesting way to engage the sneezers. As Om puts it, Mitch “goes after the dissenters with a verbal baseball batâ€?…. If you find yourself on the other side of a debate with Dave Winer, Om Malik, Doc Searles, Jeff Jarvis and others, maybe you should rethink your position. Because it is very likely you are wrong.

Doc Searls, Dave Winer, Michael Arrington and others have been mounting a robust defence of mp3’s.

In my own case, I don’t see myself shifting away from mp3s any time soon. As far as I can see from reading about Audible’s new format, you upload your podcasts to Audible’s servers, they convert to .aa and host the podcast there. It is a paid service.

My podcasting is pretty basic – I record the sound, convert to mp3, upload to (free hosting and bandwidth) and then link to the file from within my wordpress blog. WordPress recognises the .mp3 file as an audio file and creates the correct enclosures transparently for me so I don’t need to worry about the tech side of the podcasting. How would WordPress deal with .aa files? I have no idea. I suspect, it wouldn’t recognise them as audio and therefore podcast subscribers (listeners) wouldn’t know you had published new podcasts.

I think Audible’s strategy is wrong here – I think they would have been far better served coming up with a mechanism for measuring stats on mp3s rather than coming up with a new proprietary file format. What do you think?

Post updated after comments from Mitch and Pete informed me that .aa is not a new format – sorry ’bout that guys.

10 thoughts on “New Audible podcasting format – why bother?”

  1. Tom—Audible did not come up with a new format, it’s the same one they introduced almost a decade ago. The tracking features, which are an artifact of the times the format was created, because they had to manage updating low-capacity portable devices (256 K of storage) is what makes the tracking possible today. It’s already built into and supported on more than 160 portable devices, desktop applications like iTunes and Windows Media Player, and is in phone OSes, too.

    My point has been that, if you want a tracking system that is already deployed, here it is. Otherwise, you could spend a lot of money getting everyone with an iPod or other player to upgrade their devices, waiting years for the turnover to happen, and then turn on a different tracking system. Or, you could use what is available now and start experimenting with business models.

  2. Tom,

    You have a few things wrong here. First of all, .aa is not at all new – it’s well established and works on a number of portable devices (Sony is the exception, I seem to recall). Second, the point of the new service is that the MP3 format is not well suited to tracking – your suggestion to modify it to measure stats would no doubt change it in such a way that is was no longer MP3, but a whole new format. In fact, Jeff Jarvis suggested this earlier. Sure, an open format would be preferable to a proprietary one, but we just don’t have one right now that’s equivalent to the Audible offering. See this post for more:

  3. Mitch and Pete,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting and for clearing up my error saying that .aa was a new format – apologies for the mistake.

    That apart, my points about podcasting from within WordPress remain – unless there is some way to do that (without losing subscribers), many people are unlikely to change.

  4. What about an online service that would accept your mp3 podcast, take your notes and markers for sections of the podcast(Sorry don’t know the terms, but I mean at 00.57sec – conversation about rss, 01.41sec – conversation about blog etc). And then will split the one mp3 into an album, with each mp3 notes contained in the files tag.
    I have only listened to a few podcasts so sorry if that suggestion is way off 🙂

    A little messier with more files so i dont know how existing trackers would handle that. But format stays the same and a break down of the podcast is achieved.

  5. Tom—I use Movable Type’s enclosures plug-in, which automatically recognizes .aa files and wraps them in enclosure tags in my feed. I had to ask the author to add it, but it took him less than an hour. So, when I added the podcasts, they were automatically incorporated into my RSS 2.0 feed.

    I also created a separate feed of podcasts only. But I am sure that whatever plug-ins do enclosures in WordPress could be quickly modified to support .aa automatically.

    Alan—Splitting the MP3 is hard if the author hasn’t done so explicitly. That said, one of the things the Audible service does is maintain the file in as many pieces as it contains and assembles them on the fly when a user downloads. It facilitates dynamic insertion. We also looked at an idea about how to generate show notes automatically, which is on track for later inclusion in the system.

  6. Mitch,

    thanks for the further feedback.

    In WordPress, there is no plugin required for podcasting – it is built into the blog software directly – maybe if someone wrote a plugin for WordPress to wrap .aa files the same way it does for mp3s, that might work.

    Like yourself, I too created a separate feed for my podcasts – which is why i don’t want to move away from it – I will lose any subscribers I might have!

  7. Information wants to be free. People can shove their proprietary formats up their proprietary asses as far as I am concerned. Why is absolutely everything in this day and age on the internet becoming about control, advertising and making money?

  8. I hope Audio podcast does not catch on.
    Some of us are deaf and the thought of everyone podcasting instead of blogging would leave a lot of us out.
    Also with downloading videos of the net most have no subtitles

  9. Wife just bought some study chapters for her nursing program from Audible. Likely the VERY last transaction they will see from this house hold.

    At the end, after some not so intelligent questions, you end up with .aa files. Wife’s mp3 player that she use, does NOT support .aa or protected .wma files. So she is SOL.

    I will, take hell or high water, convert these .aa files to something that she actually CAN use.

    mp3 lives on, it is not about stealing or sharing, but it is about making life simple. We have no problems paying for stuff, but Audible is risking ending up in the same category as RIAA; alienating their customers and just forcing us to look elsewhere.

    At the same time, Audible’s stubborness is good. It challenges others – that like me are frustraded – to come up with other/better solutions and possibly putting audible out of business

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