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The Apple podcast app is a disaster

Apple’s latest update completely ruined the app’s UX and destroyed my painstakingly curated podcast library.

The Apple podcast app is a disaster
[Source photo: Jaz King/Unsplash]
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Never before has a phone update felt more like a blatant act of hostility.

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As I’d last left my Apple podcasting app, on pause after a dish-washing catchup on You’re Wrong About, all my audio files were in a pristine, easily accessible queue. I woke up yesterday to find them decimated to a smoldering rubble. Nothing was in its right place, many podcasts had just plain vanished, and worst of all, the damage wasn’t even the result of a glitch, but rather an ostensible improvement. (You know how, in a Dadaist sense, totally destroying something can count as improving it?)

I wasn’t the only victim crying foul in the wake of the iOS 14.5 update either. In fact, I was late, having resisted the digital overhaul out of sheer laziness. It turns out people have been upset about it since late April.

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Complaining about an app update is a routine part of 21st-century life. Any change to one’s precious phone settings invites a rigmarole of outrage. Underneath it all, though, the true complaint is almost always essentially about the nature of change itself. Having to put in a little extra effort to navigate an app that has become second nature adds a tiny edge to one’s day. Basically, it can be a chore to relearn an interface you already know. But after some initial grumbling, most people simply adapt until, before they know it, the process begins all over again with the arrival of the next update.

This time, it’s different. The Apple podcasts update is legit terrible.

On the plus side, the redesigned show pages are rather sleek, and curated collections on the Search tab help with discoverability. But while previous bugs in the app have included skipping playback, inaccurate time stamps, skewed UI elements, and unresponsive scrolling, the problems with this update are, confoundingly, by design.

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The podcast library, now structured just like Apple’s Music app, is comprised of five sections: Recently Updated, which is the landing page; Latest Episodes; Shows; Downloaded; and Saved. None of them seems like an ideal default podcast storage unit.

It used to be that merely looking at one episode of a podcast lodged the show in your library, like a sesame seed in your gumline, until you were ready to floss it out. You could click a cloud icon and earmark the episode in your library. It wasn’t downloaded yet, taking up data storage; it was just there, ready to go, in the event you had a Wi-Fi connection and were in the mood. Post-update, however, downloading an episode puts it in the Downloaded section, while getting it into Shows or Recently Updated is achieved only by subscribing.

That means that any podcast episodes users might have earmarked but hadn’t yet subscribed to were automatically wiped off their phones with the update. If everything in that purgatorial space between Browsing and Downloaded had automatically rolled over into Saved in the new version, the change might have been almost understandable. But it didn’t. Now, hundreds of podcast episodes I’d intended to listen to, painstakingly curated over time, often by combing through a 500-episode show library, are just dust in the pod-wind. Eliminating so much personal effort feels downright disrespectful.

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Now, it certainly helps creators for the app to steer people toward subscriptions. (They’re called ‘follows’ now, by the way.) However, sometimes one needs a few test-drives to decide whether to bring a show home. As someone who is perennially, concurrently taking several test-drives with several shows, my Shows and Latest Episodes sections now appear to have been hit by Thanos’s Snap. It’s sort of nice to have an excuse to start building a podcast library all over again, but I’d prefer it be my choice to make, rather than one thrust upon me by Apple.

As I tried to rebuild my library, I ran into other difficulties. For instance, there’s no way to jump from an episode in Downloaded to the page where that show lives in order to subscribe to it. Users have to move over to the Browse function, making the restoration chore even more tedious. It’s a tiny gripe, but irksome nonetheless—especially since other update features seem to railroad users into subscribing more. (I mean following more.) What an easily preventable oversight! The lack of care put into this update is frankly flabbergasting.

As for the shows to which users do end up following, both the Recently Updated and Shows sections now house their entire back catalog. The only easy way to jump to the episode you actually want to listen to, if it’s not the most recent offering, is by going to Downloaded. And upon removing an episode from that section, it still remains lurking in both Recently Updated and Shows. That satisfying, itch-scratched feeling of deleting a finished podcast, like crossing off an entry from one’s to-do list, is now complicated by the fact that users will likely scroll past that episode again many times.

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The whole experience of finding and listening to shows is now completely depersonalized. This new update makes it always seem as though you have borrowed someone else’s phone to listen to a podcast on it. I truly cannot remember any other instance when an update made an app’s user experience this incomprehensibly terrible. Who could have ever thought these changes would be embraced?

With this update, Apple is practically daring users to jump ship and make a new podcasting go of it at Overcast or Spotify. If only the same digital laziness that kept me from updating my iOS for six weeks didn’t also make switching podcast apps seem so laborious, that’s exactly what I would do, too.