How can I write a history of something that has been around less than 12 months? The answer to that question lies in the truism that just about nothing is created in a vacuum, and just as x-ray photography evolved from radiation tests, podcasting evolved from humbler beginnings. Podcasting's roots actually are planted in the world of blogs (Web logs). Therefore, we must look first at the origin of the blog. Indeed, to see the genesis of podcasting, we have to go back way back to the mist-shrouded days of the 1980s.
The home computer and Internet
Entire phone-book-size books have been written about the history of the home computer and the Internet, and I'm pretty sure that you don't want me to go down that road in a book about podcasting! That said, I'll cut to the chase and just say that the current ubiquity of the home computer and nearly universal access to the Internet (in one form or another) are the structural underpinnings that make podcasting possible to begin with. Without this technology in millions of homes, this book wouldn't have been written. 'Nuff said.
While some people feel that the roots of blogging lie in the ashes of pen-pal relationships and ham-radio operation, let's start with the computer culture of the 1980s. By the early '80s, the personal computer was starting to take hold. Apple was still king (in terms of home computers), but others, such as IBM and Commodore, were making significant inroads as the years passed. By mid-decade, many computer users had modems, and they were using these modems to log on to bulletin boards (also known as BBs), e-mail lists, or online services such as GEnie and CompuServe (precursors of today's AOL). Many aspects of these outlets and services were essentially early versions of Web logs. People could dial in with their modems, read new messages that had been posted by others, and then enter their own messages.
Clearly, the seeds of blogging were sown in the 1980s, but the real sprouting and growth of blogging occurred in the mid-1990s, paralleling the meteoric rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web. According to Wikipedia, the term Web log was coined in 1997 by Web-log pioneer Jorn Barger. By the eve of the turn of the century, Web log had melded into the single word blog, and the popularity of blogs started to skyrocket. Ultimately, a gentleman by the name of Dave Winer designed a way to inform users when their favorite blogs had been updated with new information, thus making blogging even more versatile and useful to the masses. Today, there are countless blogs, many of which have large followings, such as Jade Walker's "blog of death," shown in Figure 1.5.
Figure 1.5. www.blogofdeath.com, the brainchild of Jade Walker, is typical of the modern blog.
Audio blogging was a variant of the blog that involved the posting of audio files rather than text in its entries. By all accounts, the audio blog was not a resounding success in terms of garnering the kind of worldwide attention that the blog had. Still, the audio blog existed, and files were usually offered in MP3 format, although occasionally, other Web-based formats, like Flash (Macromedia), would be used. It was from the underpinnings of audio blogging that podcasting arose.
In 2004, the RSS format was combined with aggregator software to essentially check RSS-enabled Web pages for new audio content and keep users up to date on content. In English, that means that a combination of software programs came together to enable people to subscribe easily to audio content (podcasts) and have that content delivered directly to their home computers and, ultimately, their digital media devices (MP3 players).
The digital media player
With all the talk about Web logs, blogging, and audio blogging, it can be easy to forget that the digital media player, otherwise known as an MP3 player (Figure 1.6) or iPod (Figure 1.7), also played a key role in the sudden rise and popularity of podcasting. The lineage of today's digital media players can be traced back to the venerable Sony Walkman from the late '70s. A play-only cassette tape machine, the Walkman was small enough that it could be taken virtually anywhere, and it became a huge hit, selling around 3 million units in its first three years of sales. (By comparison, Apple has moved more than triple that amount of iPods in a similar timeframe.)
Figure 1.6. A Creative MP3 player.
Figure 1.7. Apple's iPods have taken the world by storm, capturing the vast majority of the market.
Photo courtesy of Apple Computer, Inc.
From the Walkman sprouted plenty of competition, including cassette tape players with radios included. These devices ultimately shrank to near the size of the cassette tapes themselves. In the mid-1980s, the compact disc (CD) hit the market and took it by storm. It wasn't long before portable CD players showed up, and these, too, progressed from relatively bulky devices to very slim and elegant designs that were not much larger than the CDs themselves.
By 1998, the MP3 format was being used to play music on computers (with the help of a piece of software called WinAmp), and during that same year, the first viable MP3 player emerged on the market. Early MP3 players were flash-memory-based (meaning they had a small, fixed amount of space to hold music), but by late 1999, hard-drive-based MP3 players also started to appear. The market for MP3 players was very fragmented until Apple Computer released the first iPod in October 2001.
The iPod has been nothing short of a resounding success, and in the few short years since the iPod's introduction, Apple has gained control of more than 90 percent of the hard-drive-based player market and 65 percent of the total MP3 player market. With Apple's dominance and cultural influence with regard to MP3 players, it's no wonder that the term podcasting includes a reference to the iPod.
MP3 players today include software that makes moving music and other audio files from the Internet to computer to player very simple. Apple's iTunes software significantly affected the simplicity of all vendors' software in this manner, making podcasting easier for the average user.
The MP3 file
The MP3 file was developed in Germany by Dieter Seitzer and Karlheinz Brandenburg at a company called Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the University of Erlangen. The MP part of MP3 refers to the MPEG roots of MP3 compression. MPEG stands for Moving Picture Experts Group, which was established in 1988 to set standards for digital encoding. Developed and perfected in the mid-1990s, the MP3 format, which stands for MPEG Audio Layer III, became the standard for digital audio compression worldwide.
MP3 compression is necessary because CD-quality audio files are extremely large too large, in fact, to fit on digital players of the day. An average song on a CD might consist of 30 MB to 40 MB of information, while that same song in MP3 format could be whittled down nearly tenfold to 3.5 MB or 4 MB with minimal quality loss. Obviously, without the MP3 format, the rise of small digital media devices would have been cost-prohibitive and unrealistic.
As another piece of the puzzle, the MP3 format is one of the key elements of the rise of the podcasting phenomenon (among many other things). Although the MP3 format has been eclipsed by AAC (the format Apple uses on its iPods), it is still a viable and frequently used compression method for all Web-based audio content.
Podcasting is born
And so with home computers, the Internet, blogging, audio blogging, the MP3 format, and digital media players all coming together in a roundabout way, the wonder that is podcasting is born. Without all of these elements coming together in just the right way, podcasting as we know it now might not even exist. The connections among all of these diverse technologies could be examined in much deeper detail, but for now, it will suffice to say that podcasting exists. Hooray!