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What's Up With Apple's Podcast Move?

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It seems like podcasts have been this great "new" medium for a while now, long after their introduction in 2004 and their subsequent explosion in popularity. Based on the most recent statistics, it's projected there are currently somewhere between 115,000 and 150,000 unique English language podcasts available for download, most of which are free. That's right, no cost for, in many cases, over an hour of audio or video content ranging in topics like news, comedy, society, business, and religion.

In 2010, Wizzard Media, which is the world’s largest podcast hosting network, confirmed 1.64 billion individual podcast downloads, which translates tp 4.47 million requests per day -- versus 3.81 million the year before -- at an increase of 17.3%. At an average length of 23 minutes per an episode, 1.7 million hours of content are being requested daily.

Apple (AAPL) has been trying to make money off the podcasting phenomenon since 2005 and according to one opinion from cultofmac.com, what appears to be a technical snafu in Apple’s latest developer release package is in fact the iPhone maker’s latest move to control the podcasting market.

Rumors have been circulating that podcasts -- which are traditionally offered for free in a subsection of iTunes -- have been removed from iTunes in the upcoming iOS 6 update, and it has been confirmed that podcasts are considerably downplayed in the new version of the software. This has led many to assume Apple is gearing up to introduce a separate Podcast App, which could be a final swing in the podcast war that began seven years ago, when Apple failed in its attempt to trademark the term “Podcasting.”

It might have been called retroactive branding, since Apple was attempting to brand something it had not invented, which had been in existence for at least a year prior. It would be like Microsoft (MSFT) trying to copyright the term "personal computer" or Cisco (CSCO) trying to copyright “IT Infrastructure.”  Still, Apple continues to sue companies that use “pod” or ”podcast” in their names or product names all the time, citing confusion with Apple’s iPod brand.

Conceivably, a completely separate app named “Podcast” could give Apple legal authority over the name, affording leverage against those using the “pod” moniker.

Whether intentional or not, the move will help ground podcasts as a distinct medium -- seperate from the music, TV, and movies sold in iTunes -- capable of future growth.

The question remains: Will Apple include its Podcasting app in the basic default apps? Or will it treat it like iTunes U, which provides free academic content, and has since been moved from iTunes into a seperate app? Both iTunes U content and most podcasts are free and naturally compete with the paid content Apple delivers through iTunes.

Digging deeper, the move might be interpreted as aggression toward one of Apple’s biggest competitors, Amazon (AMZN), who not only competes with Apple’s content distribution, but tablet sales as well. Since 2008, Amazon has owned Audible.com -- an audiobook subscription service that is an exclusive supplier of content to iTunes. The Podcast app might be a platform for Apple’s own in-house audiobook services, which would seek to steal market share from Amazon.

Remember, this is all speculation, and the Apple rumor mill is always buzzing.

(See also: 5 Hot Apple Rumors and 5 More Hot Apple Rumors)
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.

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