Apple’s announcements at its WWDC developer conference consisted of plenty of additional features for the company’s four main operating systems—but no real major news and no new hardware. So while some of the individual updates were significant, it wasn’t easy to sew it all together into a larger theme about the direction of the company. It was also easy to gloss over individual features that might make a big difference to users. One of those was the new support for podcasts in the Apple Watch via watchOS 5.
This is an important step for the Watch because it is a fitness device, and podcasts can play a big role in fitness. Here’s why: For my runs I’m always looking for something, anything, to distract me from the pain. A fitness expert explained that this is a common desire even among serious athletes. They’re looking for “dissociation;” that is, they’re trying to separate their mind from the punishing work they’re putting their bodies through. Then, during a real race, athletes train themselves to be very present and in the moment, so that they can put everything they have into their performance.
Music can fulfill this dissociative function for me, I find, but only for relatively short lengths of time. I don’t remember the last time I was held rapt by a whole album of music (about the length of a run), but it was a long time ago and I’m not sure I was sober (it could have been Dark Side of The Moon). But that’s just me; many people I know must have a carefully chosen playlist going while they work out. I imagine that type represents the majority and that’s why Apple enabled streaming Apple Music (long before podcasts) after the launch of the Apple Watch 3, the one with the cellular broadband connection.
How to distract myself
What does hold me rapt these days are podcasts and audiobooks. They may not provide bursts of inspiration and endorphins as some music does, but they do keep my brain occupied for extended periods, and that’s the name of the game during runs. If I’m wrapped up in an episode of The Daily or Pod Save America, I’m not thinking about how my legs feel. And that whiney little voice that keeps saying “how long has it been? how long has it been already?” is stifled.
When watchOS 5 becomes available next fall, I’ll be able to stream any podcast from the Apple Podcasts app to my Watch and through my AirPods. The iPhone won’t be needed. If, mid-run, I think of a podcast I want to hear immediately, I’ll be able to order up the stream via Siri.
Apple built in a nice real-world feature that keeps track of your progress through podcasts on all your iOS devices. So if you listened to half of Podcast X on your phone on the way home from work then go out for a run later with your Watch, the podcast will pick up right where you left off.
And, importantly, third-party developers like Audible will be able to sync their content to the Apple Watch for offline playback.
In a way, Apple’s support for these new spoken-word content types seems a little overdue. Both podcasts and audiobooks have seen their popularity grow rapidly in recent years.
Pod bless America
Podcasts have become an important and oft-cited part of the national news and political conversation. Audiobooks are generating three times as much revenue for publishers than they did five years ago, the New York Times reports. The same NYT story reports that popular authors like Michael Lewis have begun publishing excerpts or chapters of upcoming books with Audible, instead of test-marketing the writing with print magazines like Vanity Fair or Harpers as has long been done.
Podcast and audiobook support is just one more feature that liberates the Watch from the iPhone (Apple also announced that the Watch will support some limited web page viewing). The Watch’s ultimate success may depend on the progress Apple makes in this direction. The combination of a body-worn computer (the Watch) and a body-worn audio interface device (AirPods) could end up being a powerful one, but only if the iPhone is allowed to stand out of the way.