iTunes and WebFeed Aggregators

Note: This article regards a pie-in-the-sky idea, it is not a product made by apple (or anyone else that I know of).


During the last 5 years, large/cheap hard drives, peer to peer file sharing and good compression schemes have resulted in massive collections of music being stored on personal computers. It is no longer surprising to find over ten thousand songs on a single computer, one for each mood whim or occasion, or just in case you ever need to listen to 21 straight days of music. The iTunes player, developed by Apple, provides a graceful solution to the organization and selection of the appropriate music files for the average computer user.

WebFeed Aggregators

Over 20 thousand newspapers, magazines, and broadcast sites as well a little under 2 million weblogs. In an age of media consolidation and loss of competitive media outlets, this avalanche of available content is both heartening and overwhelming. WebFeed standards like RSS and ATOM help provide passive access to this information, saving a user's time while also allowing easier access to newly published information.

What iTunes and WebFeed aggregators have in common is an acknowledgement of the fact that users have more access to more sources of data (news/music) than they have ever had before, and technology can help them manage this onslaught.

Other technologies have been developed to help handle this avalanche of information. Google News was natural outcropping from this information glut, offering a computer generated outlook of the current news. Some of the most popular weblogs also fulfill this function, by acting as clipping services, collecting and presenting information for a niche audience. Search engines also play a role in helping bring readers information when they go to look for it. But, strangely enough, many users still rely on collections of news articles compiled only once every 24 hours, which they pay to have delivered to their homes, inked onto the pulp of dead trees. So, there is obviously room for improvement.

Imagine for a moment, iTunes and a WebFeed aggregator meeting in a bar, having a few too many drinks, and too few inhibitions.

9 months later...iReader

iReader for full screenshot

Dynamic Browsing

Detail of dynamic browsing for full screenshot

It is this feature in particular that iTunes felt was important enough to patent. The ability to dynamically create playlists on the fly from genre, artist, and album. This matches up nicely to similar categories of sources, sections, and publish dates common to most all content. This hierarchy would allow you to pull up a traditional listing of all of today's stories from the NY Times' Nation/World section. However, it would also allow for slightly more advanced browsing of all of the entertainment sections from last friday to get a quick overview of the movies out.

Dynamic Ordering

Detail of dynamic ordering for full screenshot

Traditionally the ordering of each story is determined by relative importance within the boundary of the rest of the stories available in that publication. However, if a reader that relies on multiple sources, the ordering imposed by each publication becomes less useful. In the iTunes player content can be ordered via various types of metadata, including user rankings based on a 1-5 scale. This could also be applied to stories, based on common properties like author, publish date, source, length, etc. Finding all articles written by a favorite writer or looking for the enterprise-length reports in multiple newspapers becomes a single-click action.

Saving and Sharing Collections

Detail of collection for full screenshot

This isn't unique to iTunes, but is still very useful to the idea of organizing large amount of content. The idea is to build individual or group clipping services that keep track of a subset of interesting articles. For instance, a company might build and share out a collection of published articles mentioning the business to keep investors/employees informed. This sort of system would also allow new Farks or InstaPundits to spring up without the need for a web server or any knowledge of html. This is perhaps the single item that is most glaringly missing from most other news aggregators and the idea the has the greatest chance of helping people manage their information intake.

Currently, the iTunes store has celebrity playlists letting the average music listener experience new music they may not have been already exposed to. They have also recently rolled out the ability to let the average music listener publicize their customized playlists within the store. The idea behind it is simple, that by exposing people to new music they might enjoy, both the listener and the store benefit. This translates beautifully to online news, with rare gems of articles going unnoticed except by the few who seek them out. Giving the content dj's a broadcast outlet is one of the best things the news industry can do at this point.

Other possibilities

  • It is not inconceivable to see this built into a next-generation ipod. A 20GB ipod can hold about 200 hours of music, 40 hours of video, or every news article published every US newspaper for over a week.
  • The same technology that powers the iTunes store could handle newspaper archives. Google is proving that storage and indexing of insanely large data collections is no longer an impossibly high barrier.
  • The standards to deliver this type of content are already being worked on. Weblog builders are pushing forward with this with or without the established media sources.
  • An interesting outcrop might be passive recommendations of content. If a critical mass of users developed, recommendations could be made from users interested in similar topics.