Content-shifting has been a big trend for awhile now. First, digital video recorders (DVRs) allowed us to save our favorite shows to watch later, a habit accelerated by Netflix and Hulu. On the Web, we can save videos to our phones and tablets using apps like ShowYou and Boxee. For text-based content, there’s Instapaper and Pocket.
But what about audio? The Web could really use a universal “listen later” button.
I Can’t Live Without Time Shifting
I don’t know what I would do without the ability to time-shift the content I encounter online. Throughout my day, I come across blog posts, long-form articles and videos that pique my interest, but have nothing to do with whatever I’m working on at that moment. Thankfully, the Instapaper browser booklet allows me to set aside each article, neatly filing it away for later consumption and, perhaps more importantly, keeping my mind clear of distractions. Without this, I would go insane.
In addition to my ever-overflowing Instapaper queue, I have a queue of videos that sits in the Boxee iPad app, just waiting to be AirPlayed to my HDTV over dinner later. What I don’t have, however, is a way to save audio content for later listening.
Truth be told, there are several ways to save certain types of audio content so they can be heard in the future. NPR’s iPhone app lets me queue up news clips and episodes of shows. Podcasts, almost by definition, are queues of audio for later listening. If I favorite a track on SoundCloud or like a song on YouTube, I can return later to that list of clips and hit play.
It’s possible to save audio, but the options are fractured across different apps, platforms and devices. Why can’t we have a universal “Listen Later” button like the “Read Later” bookmarklet we use for text?
Some Promising Initiatives, But No Slam Dunks
Some developers are taking a stab at it. Andrew Kurjata, a self-described “radio guy in a digital world” used Tumblr and a Firefox plugin to build his own personal audio queue. It’s a creative solution, but a multi-step hack like this probably isn’t seamless enough for most people. Similarly, there’s a workaround that will let you use podcast app RSSRadio in an Instapaper-like fashion, but again, it’s a hack. A Web app called HuffDuffer lets you build out your own podcast RSS feed from found audio clips. It’s nice, but still not quite the universal button Web audio needs.
Some projects focus specifically on music. The inventive developers behind the Tomahawk music player created a browser bookmarklet that scrapes webpages for meta data about audio files it finds – and then checks that against its own mega-database of song metadata and lets users queue up those tracks in the Tomahawk desktop player. It’s pretty brilliant from a technical standpoint, but it works only with music and has no mobile component.
Minilogs is a Web app that lets you build playlists of songs from across the Web, a process that’s simplified by its handy browser bookmarklet. It can pull audio from sources like SoundCloud, Spotify, BandCamp and YouTube to build Web-based playlists controlled by a simple, universal player. It’s nice, but once again, it’s music-focused.
One of the most promising solutions for saving sounds is Later.fm. It’s similar to Minilogs, but is more visually reminiscent of Instapaper and goes beyond music to include podcast episodes and other clips. Like most of these projects, Later.fm is still very much a work in progress, and that shows when you try to scrape audio from certain pages.
Whoever Nails This Wins At Web Audio
Each of these projects is impressive and promising in its own right, but none of them are the end-all, be-all Instapaper-for-audio repository many of us are clamoring for. One of the reasons no such solution is exists is because audio is a far more complex beast than text. Text is text. Words don’t have formats, codecs and complex licensing restrictions that inhibit them from being shared freely. Audio content has those variables and more, making it much harder shift it across time.
Who will crack this nut? Apple would never come close, but Google might. More realistically, I could see a company like SoundCloud or Stitcher radio adding this type of functionality to their Web and mobile apps. NPR’s tech team could surprise everyone and win itself major digital media points by pushing out a solution.
If any one of these entities finally gives us an Instapaper for audio, I can guarantee that I – along with many others, I’m sure – would spend a lot more time in their apps, interacting with their brand. Whoever solves this problem wins at Web audio.
Lead photo by Stephen Cummings.