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Robert MacMillan's Random Access

Podcasting in the Dark

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; 9:50 AM

More than 6 million American adults have listened to podcasts -- in your dreams.

For those who don't know yet, a podcast is an audio file specially formatted so that certain software programs can download it automatically and transfer it to an iPod or other portable media player. It's a little like on-demand radio. The Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington reported its conclusion based on its daily tracking survey of Americans' Internet use (see the methodology at the bottom of the report).

___About Random Access___
Random Access is a daily column by Robert MacMillan that explores the latest trends in technology and how they are changing daily life.

Random Access won't tell you why a new gizmo will revolutionize your ad server. It will tell you about episodes from daily life -- exasperated waiters who use blogs to vent about their customers, whole runs of salmon injected with nanoparticles for individual tracking in Norwegian fjords and the growing number of DJs who are sick of being sidelined in favor of iPods. (Only one of these stories is fake.)

Most of what you see will be culled from news sources and blogs from around the world, though we will supplement Random Access with original files on the novel, unusual, bizarre and reactionary happenings in the world of technology and society.

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But the author of a the Engadget technology Weblog says the number sounds too high to be credible. Peter Rojas, freelance journalist, said he was skeptical about the sample size -- 208 people -- which produces a 7.5 percent margin of error (that's big). He says Pew now has backtracked, "saying that even they don't believe that 6 million Americans are listening to podcasts, and [have] admitted that the question they asked (if people had 'ever downloaded a podcast or radio Internet program') was a little overly broad since it could easily encompass all sorts of things besides podcasts. And since most people still don't know the difference between streaming and downloading, we bet that anyone who has ever even listened to Internet radio said yes to this question, too."

I called Lee Rainie, Pew Internet's director, but wasn't able to raise him this morning. Regardless of whether Pew stands by its numbers or backs off them, I wouldn't start calling podcast the technology of tomorrow. Blogs, podcasts and other ways of sharing your mind with the world are hip, which is why they make headlines. It's important to remember, however, that the hype over new technology doesn't always correlate with how many people are using it. (The notable exception is Sony's new PlayStation Portable, which I'm not going to touch today).

At least to the tech press, podcasting feels like it has been around for decades. We're sitting here wondering what's next. Broadcast everything we feel like saying or playing to a bunch of people so they can listen to it on their iPods? Sounds nice. Call us back when there are 10 real podcasters left and they've all sold out to Infinity Broadcasting. Blogs? Yeah, we're tired of those too. Everyone has one now.

Only ... they don't. Podcasting and blogs are still novelties to most Americans. An article from the Hartford Courant showing up online today tells readers about the great, new podcasting phenomenon, same as everybody's been reporting since, gosh, at least a month ago. It's evidence that what many of us perceive as a part of normal, daily life is actually still trickling into the real mainstream, which lives inland from both our coasts.

Most people still have other things to do than figure out how to set up personal communications delivery services, let alone listen to those produced by others. More people will get into podcasting and other new methods of public access, but it will be neither the business opportunity that the corporate world might want it to be, nor some mode of expression that will fundamentally change the world and how we communicate.

I've said it before, and doubtless I'll say it again. Podcasting, blogging and similar ways of sharing our thoughts with the world are less important than the thoughts that we have to share. Hopefully the hype surrounding podcasting and blogging will evaporate and the ideas they present will take precedence. Technology is cool, but great ideas are cooler.

Ignoble Phone Network

Cheating on exams used to require some skill. You had to be pretty slick to slip a note or use a cheat sheet. Nowadays, the kids are soft; they just use their cell phones. This is the news from the New York Post, which said that wireless cheating is commonplace in New York City schools. "It's more convenient than digging in your book bag and getting caught," 16-year-old Park West High School student Dominique Lee told the paper. "It's small and teachers don't think nothing of it."

See? Technology is all about convenience.


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