Owing to its embrace of the format back in 2005, Apple owns the most prominent position in the podcast market. Between iTunes on iOS and Windows and the Podcasts app on iOS, Apple owns the most popular podcast players in existence. And Apple Podcasts is by far the largest and most comprehensive—some would say definitive—directory for podcasts in the world.

That position gives Apple power and influence in the podcast world, even if you don’t use Apple’s apps to listen to your favorite podcasts. And with iOS 11, Apple’s making changes to the way podcasts organize and describe themselves that should make it easier to choose which podcast episodes to listen to, while giving podcasters more insight into just how people listen to podcasts.

First, a short primer on how podcasting works: Podcasts are comprised of a bunch of audio files placed on a server somewhere on the internet. What makes a podcast more than a random collection of MP3s is the podcast feed, a structured file that indicates what episodes a particular podcast has, information about each episode, and a link to the audio file for that episode. When you subscribe to a podcast, your podcast player of choice regularly checks the feed to see if a new episode has been added, and then downloads it.

The podcast feed format predates Apple and is an open specification, so Apple can’t control it. However, over the years Apple has extended the feed format with numerous custom tags that allow podcasters to provide richer information to users of Apple’s software. Apple’s dominance in the podcast software area means that most podcasts use those Apple-created tags, which in turn has led to those tags being supported by most of the other podcast player apps in existence. In this way, Apple has been able to use its clout in podcasting to expand and enrich the podcast feed format for everyone.

With the new version of the Podcasts app in iOS 11, Apple’s adding support for a bunch of new tags. Since, as always, these tags aren’t something Apple’s is able to reserve for its own use, it’s likely that all the changes coming to the iOS Podcasts app this fall (and possibly iTunes for Mac and Windows, though that’s less clear) will be adopted by iOS apps such as Overcast, Pocket Casts, and Castro.

Here are the improvements Apple’s making:

Start the story at the beginning. There are really two different types of podcasts—topical ones (which discuss current events and are generally best consumed starting with the most recent episode) and timeless ones (where you should start listening from the very beginning). In the past, podcast apps have assumed that you want to start with the most recent episode, rather than at the beginning. With iOS 11, podcasters will be able to specify which of these types their podcast is—and the Podcasts app will honor that choice. So if you subscribe to Serial or Hello from the Magic Tavern, you’ll start with the first episode, not the most recent. As it should be.


A possible presentation for multi-season podcasts in iOS 11.

Pick your season. Speaking of Serial, these days a lot of podcasts are released in “season” formats, where a collection of episodes make up a complete story. With iOS 11, the Podcasts app will be able to understand which season a set of episodes is a part of, and display that within the app. If you subscribe to Serial and want to listen to season 2, you’ll be able to do so—it will be displayed separately from Season 1 episodes within the Serial list.

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