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Apple Podcasts continue to be plagued by technical issues

Between the sharp uptick in bugs leading to alarmingly fundamental problems with publisher-side usability, new user experience frictions that have caused ever more listeners to deem the app near unusable, and the stumbling rollout of its much-touted podcast-subscriptions tool — all generally pegged to the iOS 14.5 update — Apple Podcasts has had a pretty rough stretch of months, and the scene doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Last week saw the surfacing of yet another consequential bug, one that’s been active for at least a few weeks now. On Thursday, the company posted a brief note on its “Apple Podcasts for Creators” portal flagging the problem:

Listeners on iOS 14.6 may experience an issue that prevents automatic downloads for new episodes from completing in the background. Although listening is unaffected, this issue can reduce downloads reported by third-party hosting providers and will be resolved with a software update, which also includes enhancements to Library, in the coming weeks.

Here’s my understanding of the issue: For Apple Podcasts users on iOS 14.6 with the appropriate settings, new episodes of shows subscribed on the app aren’t being fully downloaded in the background as expected. Furthermore, if the affected user opens the app, only some of those partially downloaded episodes are completed. It’s only when the user directly interacts with the show listing — by tapping follow, play, save, and so on — that the affected episode will download in its entirety, guaranteeing its recognition as a reported download.

There appears to be some uncertainty as to how publishers should best interpret the way in which they’re affected by this problem. Here’s my understanding on that front, based on what I know right now: Firstly, it’s important to emphasize that the issue impacts how Apple-Podcast-specific downloads are being reported on the hosting side as opposed to a show’s actual listenership on the Apple Podcasts platform. Which is to say, listeners using Apple Podcasts are still likely consuming episodes at the rates that they normally would — though, of course, it’s entirely possible that the lost convenience of automated background downloads might cause listeners to bounce off an affected show, or, more broadly, that the increased crappiness of the app might’ve driven people off the Apple Podcasts platform entirely. It’s just that, because of the background download hiccups, downloads that would’ve typically been banked on the front end of an episode are now being recorded as they come in. For some publishers, this can bring considerable complications to how podcast ads are bought and sold, especially if a publisher is in a position of estimating and reporting the average per-episode listenership of a given show to an advertiser upfront.

The bug’s emphasis on background downloads brings another, perhaps more fundamental question to the foreground. If we’re chiefly talking about automated downloads here, and if those downloads are guaranteed completion only when a listener actively pulls the show up and interacts with it, does this mean that the reported download numbers that publishers get from this bug is actually a more “true” picture of an episode’s listenership than without the bug?

Sure, this is probably the case on some level, but I also think it’s a little more complicated than that. As discussed earlier in this piece, it’s important to note that the convenience afforded by background downloads may very well have causal effects on the relationship between a listener and the show as subscribed on the Apple Podcasts platform. An episode that’s not automatically downloaded in the background might be an episode that never would’ve been consumed in the first place — a.k.a. the “leaflets in a mailbox” syndrome — but it might also be an episode that lost a listener because of that lost convenience/additional friction or, alternately, an episode that ended up being consumed on an Apple Podcasts platform competitor. (Though, as a publisher, you’d still be able to record the latter consequence at the end of the day.)

Of course, this causal stuff probably doesn’t matter from the standpoint of reporting metrics to an advertiser, which just wants to know whether its brand message reached X amount of people in theory. It might matter, however, if you’re operating from a standpoint of having to explain to management or a publishing partner as to why your show’s Apple Podcasts downloads have become distorted all of a sudden, in which case, it’s prudent to say: “Apple Podcasts is a mess for just about everybody right now. Seriously, I swear.”

It should be reiterated that this bug is specific to listeners using the Apple Podcasts app on iOS 14.6, which means that the affected downloads only represent a slice of the Apple-Podcasts-specific slice of a given podcast’s overall listenership. This composition of the problem suggests that not all shows are affected equally, their reported download losses varying based on whether the bug hit them in the first place and based on how a given show’s audience is distributed across Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or other third-party apps like Overcast, Stitcher, and… uh, Audacy, I guess? So, in theory, a show that’s heavier on Spotify audiences would experience this disruption to a somewhat different extent than a show that’s Apple Podcasts heavy or evenly distributed across the multiple platforms. This, by the way, has been my impression checking in with a few shows as we drifted into the Fourth of July weekend: Some saw heart-breaking drop-offs in downloads, while some saw more muted effects. To be clear, this is generally bad for everybody on the publishing side. It’s just that, again, the badness is not equally distributed, so keep that in mind if you’re trying to visualize the bigger picture.

Speaking of the bigger picture: Based on this bug and all the other technical issues that have popped up over the past few months, it’s really hard not to be acutely nervous about the current state of Apple Podcasts and what its growing cascade of instabilities means for the broader podcast ecosystem. Apple Podcasts’ problems, some alarmingly fundamental, seem to be stacking up in a moment where the so-called “Podcast Platform Wars” has never been hotter and thicker with platform-level competitors, many of which come with deep pockets and intents to centralize. It’s been my belief that the future of podcasting’s historically open nature is intimately connected to Apple Podcasts’ position as a strong, popular, maybe even default listening choice for podcast consumers. And on that basis, the future of open podcasting is looking pretty tenuous, much more so than it already is.

One last note. The issue around the automated background download stuff on iOS 14.6 is expected to resolve with a new software update, said to be scheduled for rollout in the coming weeks. A more specific release date is not available at this time.