Podcasting is set to become a mainstream media source – and Apple’s new version of iTunes could make it happen.

Apple is becoming something of a pioneer for modern music consumption. The company has released iTunes 4.9, building support for podcasting into the application.

Through the impossibly successful iTunes Music Store, you can log in, click on a podcast, and it’s automatically downloaded to iTunes, and synced with your iPod. But what does this change in podcasting consumption mean for the user?

Although podcast listing sites and podcast subscription software are already well established, integration with iTunes means listeners will no longer have to go elsewhere to find and download programmes. Instead, podcasts are listed in the iTunes Music Store and listeners can download and manage them all in the same application they already use to play music.

More importantly, iTunes integration puts podcasts on lots of people’s desktops, many of whom were probably only vaguely aware, if at all, of podcasting.

“This is a very big deal,” says industry anylysts Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research. “Apple has done for podcasting what they did for RSS with Safari, making it available to a mass audience so that they can get the same benefits as the techies. And it’s an even bigger deal than Safari, because iTunes runs on Windows as well.”

And it isn’t just analysts who think iTunes 4.9 marks a new dawn for podcasting. That sentiment was shared among podcasters and industry insiders as well.

“We believe this is a sea-change. Steve Jobs, through iTunes, has done what possibly no one else could have accomplished: he’s propelled podcasting into the mainstream,” says Will Lewis of US radio station KCRW. “iTunes is the primary gate-keeper for content on the iPod. The meteoric ramp-up for podcasting, like that of the iPod and iTunes, is the fastest growth I’ve seen in KCRW’s 10 years on the Internet.”

“I think it’s huge for podcasting,” concurred Engaget editor-in-chief Peter Rojas, whose podcast was climbing up the top ten downloads all day. “Tight integration with iTunes is only going to expand the universe of podcast listeners, which of course is great for people who are making these things. I haven’t been able to spend a ton of time playing with all the new features, but so far it seems really easy to use, which is exactly what you want when it comes to something like this.”

“Apple has done what Steve Jobs claimed,” says August Trometer, developer of iPodderX. “They brought podcasting to the mainstream. I like to compare podcasting to cappuccino – gourmet coffee was around for a long time, but it took Starbucks to put it on the map. Apple is the Starbucks of podcasting. Advertisers will take this all more seriously now.”

Although podcasting has been the buzzword of choice for several months, it is still largely confined to an audience of early-adoptors. Yet unlike other Internet publishing technologies such as blogging or RSS, which had to generate huge audiences before the mass media paid much attention, mainstream broadcasters are rushing to get in on the ground floor of podcasting.

Big numbers and traffic jams

Suddenly, with over 3,000 podcasts (which, it should be noted, are table stakes) and an easy-to-use interface, the iTunes Music Store has gone from nowhere to the place to list your podcast. For podcasters with a top slot on the front page, it was a big day.

“I was a little surprised to see our podcast ranked so highly. I haven’t checked the server logs to see how much of an increase in listernership we’ve got, but so far we haven’t noticed any problems with our media server. It also ‘helped’ that Apple used the wrong URL for our feed,” said Engaget’s Rojas, who noted that Apple was in the process of correcting the error so that users could access his latest podcast.

In fact, too much traffic seemed to be a problem for some. Adam Curry’s program was the among the most prominently displayed of all the podcasts available on the iTMS. A huge banner across the top of the site, featuring Curry in a priest’s collar and sunglasses, led listeners to his PodFinder.

Yet for most of the day of the launch, PodFinder, along with his other program the PodShow, and even his Web site at www.curry.com, was inaccessible presumably due to traffic issues. Traffic was heavy for other popular destinations as well. KCRW reported a massive bump in traffic.

“Our Web master is in the process right this minute of trying to switch us over to a bigger server because of the stratospheric increase in traffic today, more than double the amount of bandwidth previously used on our busiest day ever,” said KCRW’s Lewis. “In fact, preliminary estimates are that downloads today alone have increased tenfold as a result of the iTunes 4.9 launch.”

Similarly, Feedburner, a site feed publishing and management service that hosts many podcasters’ feeds, also reported a notable increase in traffic yesterday.

“We saw a 50 per cent jump in the overall podcasting audience, looking across the top 200 podcasts managed by FeedBurner,” said the company’s vice president Rick Klau. “In its first 24 hours of availability, iTunes now has a 40 per cent market share across those same podcasts, making it the most popular podcasting client.”

Presumably, Apple’s market share is only going to continue to grow, as more people download the new version of iTunes and discover podcasting. And, with that market share and traffic should come more interest from broadcasters and, ultimately, advertisers.

“There’s now a much greater incentive for people to get their content out there. iTunes is poised to become the premier podcasting destination. Their directory is the most important one. It’s clear that this will become far more than a passing fad,” said Gartenberg.

Trouble for existing developers?

Yet if iTunes does become the premier podcasting destination, that could spell trouble for some existing developers.

Odeo, the Web-based podcast management and recording application from Evan Williams, has also generated lots of excitement. As a “one-stop-shop” for podcasting, Odeo has much of the same appeal as iTunes. But Odeo is still in beta, while Apple has a shipping product.

However, Williams stressed that iTunes would generate more interest in podcasting, and ultimately be good for Odeo. Likewise, August Trometer’s iPodder X has long been the de-facto standard for podcasting subscription management for Mac OS X. Despite the new competition, Trometer remains sanguine.

“iTunes 4.9 is welcome in that it will bring more attention to podcasting, which will, in the end, benefit us,” Trometer says. “People are going to want more features than iTunes provides, and iPodderX will fill that gap. We received over a dozen emails just yesterday from people who tried 4.9 but are sticking with the more robust features in iPodderX. Our sales, too, were up yesterday compared to the previous day. iPodderX is going strong.”

Finally, regardless of what iTunes 4.9 means to podcasters, listeners, or other developers, there’s one party that certainly stands to benefit from it: Apple.

“Apple clearly put a lot of thought into the usability of how this works. It will serve them well because they will become the premiere venue for this,” said Gartenberg. iTunes’ tight integration with the iPod, including the ability to bookmark podcasts, would serve the company’s mp3 player well, he said. “It reminds everyone that the ‘pod’ in podcasting stands for the iPod, and not the Creative Zen Micro.”