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What we need from Apple to make standalone Apple Watch podcast apps (marco.org)
374 points by qzervaas on Sept 25, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 101 comments

A little over a week ago I found out that watchOS 4 would show you the now playing screen by default when listening to something and couldn’t wait to install it.

It’s fantastic to be able to easily look at my watch to change the volume or skip track or go forward or backward in a podcast.

But then Overcast came up. And just like Marco said I ended up on installing it on my watch because I lost the ability to change the volume. The now playing widget still let me change the volume and I can use the little buttons to skip forward and backward 30 seconds.

But now I can’t choose which podcast I’m listening to from the watch. I can’t put the app on my watch because it actively brakes a useful feature.

All because Apple won’t provide a simple API the people have been asking for for two years now? It’s sort of made sense in the original watchOS I guess but once we got the ability to run apps on the watch and access the digital crown seems like an obvious step that volume control should’ve been provided.

Please, Apple?

I actually was thrilled when I realized that turning the Digital Crown didn’t adjust the volume in overcast on the watch. With the stock now playing widget, I found myself far more often accidentally adjusting the volume than doing it on purpose.

We keep hitting these barriers with proprietary software and locked down hardware. Hopefully the guys behind https://puri.sm/shop/librem-5/ will be a massive success and then turn around and do a smart-watch version.

Seems almost impossible for them to have success on the consumer market, as those just aren't the things your typical consumer thinks about.

Consumers like having e.g. reliable Maps, which is very difficult for anybody not-BigCo because they're the ones with data to do it.

Apple, Google have thousands of people and billions of dollars invested in building consumer experience for their mobile phones/apps. Getting even a tiny fraction of that market as a startup would require something wholly original. Privacy-focused <x> isn't that thing. (See: email, past privacy-OS-for-desktop attempts).

Not to mention, Apple is doing a half decent job with the privacy angle, too.

The entire time I was reading this piece, I couldn't help but think, "I wouldn't be surprised if Apple explicitly omitted that feature from the API to keep battery life reasonable on the Apple Watch."

Syncing progress for a podcast once every minute is excessive. Rather than polling, the app should update progress on the boundary transition (when starting the podcast app, when playback pauses, when bluetooth headphones disconnect, just before and after going to next/previous podcast).

Agreed on battery but it raises a question of UX vs battery life. I'd rather have a very useful watch for 6 hours than a mediocre one for 18 (less on the newer LTE models apparently). Audio is in many ways what should be the killer app for the watch. The watch should make it so I can go on a run and leave my phone at home, but omitting features like this make it a lot more difficult to fill that role.

The lifetime of a $350+++ Fitbit/notification screen is limited. Apple needs to improve the software side quickly - the hardware has come a long way from the first version.

Things like omitting error handling are just poor software design though.

I suspect a full day's worth of battery is a minimum requirement for a massive number of people though.

Genuine question but what would you do after the battery of your watch is dead at 1pm?

It depends on the use case. If I just wanted a watch to use when I’m running or at the gym so I could leave my phone at home, I would give up battery life for functionality. That would also limit the market for the watch.

Sounds more like you want a mini mp3 player than a smart-watch.

A mini MP3 player doesn’t have a GPS to track my running speed or heart rate in real time or allow me to leave my phone in the car and still get calls and messages like the Series 3.

Apple Music will be a game changer for many people on the Apple Watch, but I don’t listen to music that often. No native support for podcasts is a deal breaker for me.

Currently, if I were still an outdoor runner, I would get the cheapest Apple Watch I could to display GPS info and control audio playback and I would have an iPhone SE - the smallest phone possible - in an arm band. My 6s isn’t unwieldy with an armband but I use an iPad with cellular when I need a usable screen.

He actually did ask for boundary transition events.[1] But he asked for polling too. Not sure why. You should be able to track progress from state change events alone, no?

[1] "Minimum fix: During WKAudioFilePlayer playback, wake the host app... on state-change events, such as pausing, seeking, and reaching the end of a file."

Market would like pulling to because state change events may be rare. What if I’m listening to a two hour podcast but don’t pause it at any point? That’s a lot of possible data loss if something happens that pulling every five minutes (which is way too slow) would fix.

Probably to account for the inevitable buggy applications.

Actually this is how the “now playing info center” on iOS works too: https://developer.apple.com/documentation/mediaplayer/mpnowp...

You’re supposed to set the metadata when your track starts and don’t touch it unless playback have finished or the user pauses it. The system updates the progress bar based on the duration and the playback rate you’ve set in the now playing info.

The battery life (at least on my 7 month old series 2) is already much better than I need it to be. I’m a bit of an obsessive charger, but I almost never get it down past 40% by night time, even if I do a 2 hour bike ride workout with it.

That's exactly what I thought too. Apple generally prefers to limit features in order to provide adequate performance/usability. The moment hardware gets advanced enough to handle the features without issues, they build them in.

If that were true they’d be making something more like the Pebble Time series of watches with week long battery life, essentials built in, and minimal API.

Apple Watch is a battery hog, culprit number one being the sexy watchOS UI. If you want practicality and pragmatic trade offs, it is nowhere near what others have demonstrated.

They're clearly optimizing for a single waking-day of battery life, which is (imo) a reasonable thing to aim for. I don't want to wear a watch when I'm sleeping anyway. It's a different tradeoff than Pebble that allows them to do more. It's also something they've worked hard to pack features into (e.g. Siri voice on-watch in series 3)

This article is a great example of how the Apple Watch has failed to reach its potential almost entirely because of indifferent software product design on Apple's part. I'm sure that ever Watch owner and developer can come up with a few other examples of things that the apple watch ought to be able to do but can't. When I bought my Apple Watch, I had assumed that I'd be able to use it to view and control the podcasts I'm listening to on my attached iPhone, which is even more fundamental than what's described in this blog post. But nope, not in any meaningful or useful way.

That being said, the Apple watch is still pretty good at pretty much one thing: when my phone beeps with a notification from one of many sources (SMS, eBay, Invision Trello, Messenger, etc) I need only glance at my watch. It's also a decent exercise tracker.

But it could be so much more. Sadly, I think Apple has probably missed it's best chance to recruit top developers, so it's likely it will be relegated to fancy text reader and step counter forever.

How about viewing the monthly calendar more than a month in advance? I haven’t updated yet so I don’t know if they’ve fixed that.

It still only lets you see the current month. Which is annoying when it's, say, September 27.

Try using apps like Workflow, Homekit and others. There’s lots of Tim wresting highs to do with the watch. Podcasts are a dusty corner of the portfolio and barely get attention. I’m sure they’ll gobble the function into Apple Music.

I get what Marco is talking about here, but Overcast is already so complex it can barely play a podcast without crashing if interrupted. I don’t need that drama on my watch, where complex stuff either doesn’t work or sucks battery.

> There’s lots of Tim wresting highs to do with the watch.

"Interesting things"?

Haha. Had I used my Apple Watch, Siri would have been better than autocorrect. :)

>Overcast is already so complex it can barely play a podcast without crashing if interrupted

do you have a repro? I use overcast extremely heavily and haven't had a crash in a few months.

Average podcast is over 30 minutes, right? That means you would need to pull out your phone every 30 minutes to select the next podcast. Is that a big deal to you?

The literal first sentence of the post:

> The Apple Watch desperately needs standalone podcast playback, especially with the LTE-equipped Series 3, which was designed specifically for exercising without an iPhone.

So yes, pulling out the phone that you don't have with you is a deal breaker.

Do people really want to exercise without their phone? It seems like a non-starter for the folks that go to a gym. I run with a watch and Bragi Dash. The onboard storage of the Dash works fine for me, but most people end up using the bluetooth because they want their phone available for browsing the internet all the time anyway.

Being able to go for a run without taking my giant phone with me would be the only reason that I would buy a watch in the first place.

It looks like Apple Watch isn’t there yet. Maybe an Android watch is?

Nope. See my downvoted comment below, begging for somebody to make a podcast player for Android Wear.

Google Play Music is (AFAIK) the only media player that works on AW. However, you're unable to sync podcasts to a watch, only music (even though podcasts via GPM work on the phone). So over the last 1.5 years with 2 AW watches (Moto360 sport, Polar M600) across 2 major Wear releases, I've had to listen to music on my runs, rather than the podcasts I'd have preferred. And I take my phone on walks / hikes to listen to podcasts, when I'd prefer to leave it home.

If the apple watch supported podcasts, I'd probably switch.

Why do you think it isn't there? Actually I bought Apple watch series 2 for exactly this reason, running without a phone. It has everything you need (GPS+heart rate monitor+music), and you can even have podcasts with third-party apps.

Wasn't the whole article about how standalone podcast apps on the watch aren't possible? What 3rd party apps allow playing podcasts on the Watch without iPhone?

There may be some half assed solutions, the article was why a good standalone podcast app isn't currently possible.

did you know about Watchcast[1]? It's been offering offline Watch podcast playback long before Marco failed at the feature and requested new APIs...

[1] https://brianmcburney.github.io/

Watchcast has the same issues Marco brought up. Developers should not condone Apple's overly-aggressive platform limitations by sacrificing good UX just to release a feature.

It's mostly there. Podcasts might have a UX issue, but works great for music on the go

Absolutely! I go on every run without my phone. I've managed to cheat the Apple Watch into letting me sneak podcasts on to it through iTunes, but it's a hack and it doesn't sync back to my podcasts on my phone/computer.

Still, at least I'm able to go on runs with my music podcasts.

Edit: Changed iWatch to Apple Watch.

Yes, I'd really like to be able to run with just a small device while still getting the basic updates. I'm a jogger and my partner prefers cycling, meaning if we go out to exercise together, she's a few kilometers away from wherever I am at any given time, so coordinating finishing up her hour of cycling and my hour of running can be a chore.

I really don't like carrying around a large 5.5" screen phone while running; the armband pouches are about as convenient as you can get and I appreciate them for what they are, but just having a small watch device would be far better for me (and for many I assume). Easier to waterproof so I don't have to worry about it when it rains, less to break should an accident happen (I trip, collision with cyclist, etc), lighter overall. That plus having a means of shooting off a quick message via Siri or whatever voice service to just keep track of people would be wonderful.

Do I need it? No, but boy do I want it.

> Do people really want to exercise without their phone?

Yes. If I'm exercising, I want to carry the absolute minimum. If I'm doing a lot of daily tasks, I want to carry the absolute minimum. If I can get by without something phone-sized in my pocket by wearing something watch-sized on my wrist, I'd prefer the former.

Yes, otherwise why would LTE be useful at all on the watch?

Running outside, I definitely don't want to carry my 7+. It's large and I have the watch.

   Do people really want to exercise without their phone?

Yes, yes they do.

> Do people really want to exercise without their phone?

Yes. That is the entire reason I bought mine... Those phones are huge. It would be like strapping a plate to my arm while I run.

My phone stays at home when I work out.

Which is good because I don't use the gym benches to fiddle with my phone

Depending on what you're doing, you might need to pause/play/rewind the podcast a lot. I walk to coffee shops through some neighborhood area, and then some busy roads. So I make sure to pause for traffic noises, often I've gotta do so to talk with neighbors, and then so on. I don't even have an apple watch, but not having to deal with pulling my phone out a good number of times per walk over a lot of walks means a lot less times I could potentially drop my phone.

> Depending on what you're doing, you might need to pause/play/rewind the podcast a lot.

The existing 'now playing' capabilities of the watch handle this perfectly well. They don't handle selecting podcasts to play though.

I think the one's I'm listening to average to somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. More agains the 90 min mark.

Where we’re going, we don’t need phones.

I don't think Apple needs to be told where their APIs are lacking for podcasting, as evident through the absence of standalone playback in their own Podcasts app, let alone an app at all. Either Apple can't figure out how to take the podcast experience and make it a good one on the Watch, or more likely (I think), the way it would need to work would make the Watch experience bad. I imagine they've got the "just play" experience for music heavily optimized, but the callbacks Marco mentions probably do terrible things to the Watch's battery and processor. Either way, this is a known desired thing, and if it could be done in a reasonable way, I'm sure they would have - they did put the 'pod' in podcast, after all.

Apple has, in recent years, made explicit overtures to the developer community. They’ve welcomed feedback, requests, and concerns. They’ve acted on some of them. It’s absolutely appropriate to write a piece like this. Clearly summarizing a perceived need driven by a clear set of user stories permits Apple to evaluate viewpoints that may not be familiar.

> as evident through the absence of standalone playback in their own Podcasts app, let alone an app at all

This is moot. If Apple wanted were to put their podcast app on Apple Watch they would just use internal APIs that third parties can't use, like the default music app.

They actually had a podcasts app for the Watch early on, and removed it without giving a reason why.

That was actually my point - either they don't want it done, or can't figure out a way to do it in a consumer-friendly way (read: without wrecking the battery). Apple gets to go first thanks to private APIs, and they haven't done this yet.

I would suggest it's probably a matter of time, rather than any judgement of infeasibility. Apple uses an iterative 80/20 rule approach to functionality. Podcasts didn't make the cut, because more people listen to music, and they hadn't even finished LTE streaming of Apple Music yet, and generally they service their internal apps/services first, before enabling competing third parties.

Podcasting on the phone lost the ability to rate/review podcasts. I suspect that they have simply prioritized talent to something else and this will languish for a while. If enough people squawk the plan that will make this great will get executed

> Podcasting on the phone lost the ability to rate/review podcasts.

Happily, Podcasts (at least in the 11.0 GM release) still lets you rate/review podcasts on iOS 11.[1]

[1] https://i.imgur.com/AFRSQZu.jpg

That’s hard to accept given how utterly rubbish the Apple podcast app was for many years. It took them ages to get it right.

I liked this piece right off the bat, not because the content is relevant to me but because it took responsibility and initiative, unlike many similar such articles I see on here.

The key is in the title "What we need from Apple TO MAKE standalone Apple Watch podcast apps", rather than "Why Apple needs to make a standalone Watch podcast app".

This is an excellent point and I completely agree. I loved the way the Marco took initiative to propose actual viable technical solutions rather than just vague complaining like so many articles do.

I’ve considered setting up a cron job to change select podcasts in iTunes to music so they sync with the watch. No position sync or fast forward but enough for a run.

Having spent 24 hours with the cellular watch and taken two runs without the iPhone, this is now a near necessity.

It's pretty sad that such a useful and obvious UX needs to be hacked up

That would be awesome if you wanted to share it!

I've got it working with a node script to change the id3 tag, and re-add to itunes, that triggers a smart playlist called "Watch Podcasts" in the Music section.

Then the node script triggers AppleScript to Update iCloud Library.

The "Watch Podcasts" smart playlist is added in iPhone Watch app under Music.

Now when the watch is charging any of those podcasts are synced.

Don't have a clean way to share (and selecting podcasts to transfer is manual on the Mac).

If there's interest I may expand on utility and share

Just wanted to throw another name down for interest in this script! Would be an awesome feature

Here it is:


I really did hack it together before a run and am very embarrassed by the code. pull requests welcome :)

This is the single thing preventing me from buying an Apple Watch. I use Overcast to listen to podcasts on iOS and usually listen while running. As soon as Apple make these APIs available and Marco is able to create a watch app I'll be straight down the Apple Store to give Apple my £429.

For me it's the battery. Having to charge a watch every 24-48 hours is a complete non-starter, regardless of its functionality. I don't want to carry more cables or charging stations with me wherever I go. It's the single-most point of stress, especially when I travel.

If the battery lasted 7-10 days, it would be perfect. That's about how long my business trips take, so I could charge it to full beforehand and not worry about it at all during the trip.

You won't see a week-long battery life on the Watch for many years, but you will see a single charging pad for Watch + iPhone + AirPods next year. Seems like a reasonable compromise for travelers.

I've been using a plug like this ( https://www.amazon.co.uk/Charger-Syncwire-4-Port-Interchange... )for my phone/watch/headphone/kindle charging for years. It's very handy - especially when travelling.

Yeah, I'm not sure I would want one even in that case, but certainly not until then.

The Apple Watch might be selling well, but it's definitely not getting the kind of 3rd-party app support Apple probably wanted to see (me and everyone I know who has one likes it, but only uses notifications and fitness tracking).

With that in mind, it's crazy to me that Apple isn't beating down Marco's door to give him his requests. In the limited time that standalone Watch playback was in Overcast, even in its crappy implementation I used the hell out of it. Audio is one of the few home-run use cases for Watch apps, whereas in most other cases it's so much simpler and easier to just use your phone. Why wasn't that the first API implemented and the one polished to a shine? I hope they're not trying to make Apple Music the only available option.

> even in its crappy implementation I used the hell out of it.

Then based on Marco's own stats, you were one of about 0.1% of users...

That said, now that the watch is free* from the tether of my iPhone, I'd love to listen to podcasts on it on a run while leaving my phone behind.

[1] https://marco.org/2017/08/10/removed-send-to-watch [2] relatively

Ironic that progress sync is listed as the deal-breaker. That's the one thing which doesn't seem to work properly between my laptop and my iPhone with Apple's Podcasts app and iTunes on the desktop.

offtopic, but on the page there is a note with:

    There’s one elaborate exception that we discussed 
    in Under The Radar #98: workout apps, which are
    allowed to run in the background and play audio.
    So this all becomes possible if you combine a
    standalone podcast player with a workout app, and
    only allow podcast playback while a workout is
    active that was started from that app.
    But this forces the combination of two completely
    different app types, and users would find the
    workout-during-playback requirement confusing,
    inexplicable, and limiting.

    Requiring podcast apps to also be workout apps is a
    user- and developer-hostile hack that Apple
    probably doesn’t intend.

whaaat? what kind of OS has this business rules so embedded?

Somewhat off topic but somewhat related, I have tried a whole bunch of different smart watches and activity trackers, and my current favorite is made by Skagen.

Specifically, the "Signatur Connected Leather Hybrid Smartwatch". It looks like an analog watch, but it has smart watch functions and connects to your phone with bluetooth.

Favorite things about it: It has an analog subdial that shows progress towards your daily step goal. It has three 'real' analog buttons that you can connect to just about any function on your phone. I have one button mapped to start/stop any music that is playing. Another button moves the hour and minute hands to point to the date. The third button sets off the ringer on my phone.

And the battery is a normal watch battery, which should last between 6 months and a year. Check it out, I think it hits the right balance between minimal analog watch and smart functions.

Why not just listen to the podcast only on the watch, since you always have it with you? What's the use case for switching to some other device once the podcast is on your watch?

When you have your phone with you it is still a better device for podcasts:

- You have access to show notes and have a full fledged browser to follow the links - You have way more battery life. I listen to about 4 hours of audio content during a day, I suppose I'd have to recharge the watch more often - Exploration of episodes and general library management is better on a bigger screen

Using external speakers (or headphones), battery life, and disk storage are three I can think of off hand.

Some podcasts are exceptionally long (10's of hours - think the out-of-copyright version of audiobooks), and those consume a lot of battery life (for both playback and transfer) and disk space.

My guess is that Apple takes battery life over everything else. You can tell that Apple has kept a consistent Talk Time/ 4G usage time over the years with iPhone. And some of these consideration means Podcast on Apple watch a little harder to get right.

And I am wondering, how much would people paid for longer battery life on Apple watch? We do have the tech, solid state battery, it is simply too expensive if it is used in the size of smartphone, because solid state battery prices scale exponentially with size. But what about Smart watches?

Are user willing to paid extra $200 for LTE + Solid State Battery?

I thought these were still prototype-stage? Do you maybe have I link where I can learn more?

Can somebody please, please, please make a podcast app for Android Wear? One that I can use without my phone, so I can go for a run/hike/walk with just my watch and headphones?

Even Google Play Music doesn't sync podcasts to wear. Sigh.

I periodically search the play store for AW enabled podcast apps, but the best I've found are apps that put playback controls for the phone on the watchface. Sigh.

Who is "we"?


They’ve sold 32 million of them by some estimates, including 12 million in 2016. No iPhone, but we’re it any other company than Apple it would be an enormous, company-making win.

This thing still ain't fully baked.

Do people still listen to podcasts? I lasted 3 months, and then moved to Audible.

I don't listen to them nearly as much as I used to, mostly because podcasts are so ad-laden these days. Listening to a two-minute ad for Ziprecruiter for every 7 minutes of content gets old fast.

There are still a bunch of great podcasts with little or no ads. Mike Duncan's "History of Rome" and "Revolutions" (single ad at the start), Omega Tau (no ads), Econtalk (no ads), and Hardcore History (which has two ads, IIRC, but the episodes last literally hours).

I think the difference is mostly between shows made by companies, or by individuals and non-profits. Gotta pay those investors.

> I think the difference is mostly between shows made by companies, or by individuals and non-profits. Gotta pay those investors.

Basically, the same situation as with videos and websites.


Both Joe Rogan (individual) and NPR (nonprofit) are ad-laden as...

Fair enough about NPR, I sometimes forget they are non-profit.

As for Joe Rogan, I can't say I've heard his show. I was relating merely my personal experience.

Oddly the wife and I bit57 and moan about the same experience with google fiber tv. I swear we are watching 80% ads for 20% content. It's to the point we can't watch anything live anymore. We just record it and wait at least 30 minutes before playing it off the dvr so we can FF through all the freaking commercials. It's insane how were paying $70/mo to watch mostly ads. Advertising has gotten so out of control, on the web, podcasts, tv, etc.

In Overcast you can set the skip to a duration that roughly matches the advert duration (I’ve set 45 seconds, generally hitting it twice) and set the rewind to 15. 3 adverts per 60-90 mins seems a reasonable trade off to me, and if the shows you listen to pick their adverts right, they are actually worth listening to.

I don’t mind ads. I just cannot hear about why Squarespace or Casper are awesome ever again.

What about Harry's? I, personally, cannot get enough of hearing about German blades.

Do they come in Blue Apron?

Isn't it awesome how ads suck the life out of every single medium they touch?

By 'brand name?' No. I still listen to people talk in pre-recorded episodic content, just not on an iPod, iPad, or iPhone. Sometimes they are videos, sometimes they are just voice. Usually, it is on a Linux device.

Podcast is by no means an Apple trademark or invention.

Yes, I know. My reference was to them saying they'd moved to Audible and were no longer using podcasts. Audible provides episodic prerecorded media, basically a podcast by a different name.

I probably could have been more clear. In my case, I do the same - except I don't use a client and nothing is automated or from any one particular service.

Yeah, I could have been much more clear.

I meant I’m now listening to audiobooks instead.

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