Interview: Odeo founder Evan Williams

Blogger founder Evan Williams revolutionized personal publishing. With its suite of free, easy-to-use tools, Blogger brought web-logging into the mainstream. Williams sold his company to Google and eventually left. But now he’s back with a new tool for a new revolution: podcasting.

Williams’ newest venture is called Odeo, a one-stop shop to help people record, edit, publish, find, subscribe, categorize, and download podcasts. Like Blogger, it has an intuitive, friendly interface, and will allow users to publish from the Web. But while Blogger seemingly came out of nowhere, Odeo is the buzz du jour before it’s even out of private beta. To find out what all the fuss is about, Playlist sat down with Williams at this week’s Supernova conference in San Francisco for a chat and Odeo demonstration.

Playlist: What is Odeo, and what does it do?

Evan Williams: With Odeo, we’re attempting to make it easy to discover, listen to, and create podcasts. So there’s basically three different pieces of it.

One is that it’s a web-based aggregator, so we’re going out and crawling and pulling in all the audio content we can find on the web that generally is in Podcast form right now. And we’re exposing the meta-data and making it searchable and adding mechanisms to allow people to discover it—things like community-based tagging and comments, and eventually ratings and other tools like that—and just pointing to it.

The second piece is that we have a small client application that will also work with other iPod clients to pull this stuff down. You can subscribe to it and add things to your queue with one click, all on the website.

And then we have a suite of publishing related services that include hosting and RSS creation, but also recording tools. We have a phone-based recording service based off of Audioblogger, which our co-founder created and we own, as well as an in-the-browser-based recording tool for podcasts.

Playlist: Who else is on the team, who are the principals?

Williams: My co-founder is Noah Glass, who created AudioBlogger. It was the first tool that allowed you to call up on the phone and leave a message which would be posted as an MP3 to the Web. AudBlog was a generic version of that, and I did a deal with him at Google, with AudioBlogger, that allowed Blogger users to use it for free. So he ran that service—he co-created it and ran it. It’s him and myself and we have a development team, and are working on funding and building it up a little bit.

Playlist: So Odeo combines multiple tasks currently performed by several other applications?

Williams: Yeah, it does. It combines the tasks that other people are doing. We’re trying to create the end-to-end solution for podcasts. So instead of a directory that points to different feeds, it will do two things additionally—it will point to the feeds, and parse the feeds and point to the individual audio files, and even let people play them in the browser.

[At this point Williams launched Odeo for a demo.]

The first thing you see here [when launching Odeo] is trying to solve the problem of discovery and subscriptions. So we have a variety of editorial and automated mechanisms. Featured channels—we call a feed a channel—are things that might be interesting to you. “Zeitgeist” are things that there’s something happening with right now. And if you delve down into the “Listen” section, we slice and dice things in various ways.

Here’s the most subscribed stuff within Odeo, here are individual shows coming in, and then there are the tags. Users can add any tags they want, and then we do some. When we’re pulling in the feeds if we recognize certain words we’ll assign some tags at the time we pull it in. So one of the differences of this from most of the directories—not all of them—is that every individual piece of audio has its own page and can be tagged, and commented on, and rated. And at every level, you can actually play the file.

The next level—the subscription piece—is one-click operation. You go to subscriptions, you manage these on the Web. Since we’ve moved all the management to the Web, this is very simple, and it just syncs automatically when you hit the sync button. It also creates a playlist in iTunes.

Playlist: And can you show me how the creation tool works? Is it an end-to-end type of thing also? Or is it more of a content uploading and managing tool?

Williams: It’s both. Any way you want to create. If you already have content, you just create your channel and start uploading stuff. You can create one of those channel pages and say, ‘hey, go subscribe to my podcast.’

On the actual recording side, we have the phone posting mechanism you set up. I can put in a phone number and a PIN, and when I call up on the phone, it will automatically get posted.

The other thing we’ve created for a little bit more production value, to help people get started, is what we call the Odeo Studio. It’s Flash-based, you come in here, hit record, and start talking. You can add little elements like intro music or clips from another show. You can upload MP3s straight from your hard drive. You can also add notes or a script. So you can set up your show ahead of time—or on the fly—come into here, trigger your intro music [Williams hits an input button in Odeo, which starts playing an MP3], you can fade that [intro music] down, and say ‘hello, welcome to my show,’ record it, talk over it, etc. Then once you’ve constructed it you can publish it out, and add meta-data—the title description, you can add a photo to it.

Playlist: And where is that published, on your servers?

Williams: On our servers, yes. In this case we’re hosting the file. That’s all turn-key.

Playlist: Is that a free service, a pay service? Or is it ad-supported?

Williams: We’re not sure about that piece yet. I think there will probably be some free level, but we’re going to charge for services at some level.

Playlist: I assume you’ve seen iTunes 4.9 ?

Williams: Yes.

Playlist: What does Odeo do that iTunes 4.9 does not do? Do you see these as being competitive products?

Williams: I think to a certain extent, but I think mostly they’re going to help each other. I think iTunes will introduce a lot of people to podcasting and make it really easy if you know what you want listen to in there. It makes tons of sense that that would be in iTunes if you use an iPod.

But there are a couple of things that, at least in the first version, it won’t do. It’s harder to point to things in iTunes. They have URLS that you can only use with iTunes. If you want to say ‘hey, go listen to this thing,’ you can point to the page on Odeo that you can actually play it from, or subscribe to, or download into iTunes, or whatever player you use. Or, you can point to it in iTunes which the person may or may not have. I think being on the Web is a significant factor.

And then we will work with iTunes as well. If you want to use iTunes instead of our client, that’s great. You don’t have to download our client. That’s fine. The other element, of course, is they don’t have the creation tools. So we think that’s going to drive a lot more demand, to create. Their thing is that iTunes only works for those who use iPods. And if they have sixty, or seventy, or eighty percent, or whatever percent of the market they claim to have now, well… If you think of all the phones in the world, that’s still a fraction of what we think the device market is. So we’re going to be agnostic in terms of device.

Playlist: In your presentation today [at Supernova] you said you thought the future of podcasting was on the phone. Are you building towards that already?

Williams: We have that in our sights; we’re experimenting with it. I have a Treo 650 and I listen to podcasts on here. I listen to this on the way to work with just one earbud and it sounds fine because it’s just for talk. If I were listening to music, I might not want to do that, but for talk it’s fine. And if I get a phone call I can switch over. Not as many people have these as have iPods right now, but…

Playlist: So do you think listening to a podcast is a less immersive experience than listening to music?

Williams: Not necessarily. Not less immersive, but I think you can be satisfied with various levels of fidelity. That’s one important factor. There’s both the sound quality and the information. This [Treo] is by default an audio device. Even if I called up something and listened to it, the sound quality is good enough if the information is valuable to me. I’m never going to call up and listen to music, but in come cases, for spoken word content, that can be fine. That also is a factor when considering the capacity effect. It may be important to have 60 gigs worth of music, but I can fit a couple of hours of podcasts on this 256MB card, and that can be fine.

Playlist: You also said [at Supernova] that people get podcasting in ways they didn’t get blogging in its early days. Do you think that’s due to something inherently different about podcasting, or does that have to do with people being more comfortable with personal publishing; seeing private individuals as experts and entertainers?

Williams: I think it’s both. I think it’s partially a timing thing and partially the nature of the medium. One of the tricky things about people getting blogging is that it is so many different things. People participate in lots of different activities under the umbrella of blogging. Sometimes it’s personal journaling, sometimes it’s actual reporting, sometimes it’s just collecting notes for my own or my co-workers purposes. And those are really different activities. People have one view of blogging, and they don’t understand it because it’s not something they would do. Give them some other view, and it begins to make sense. It was always sort of amorphous. Podcasting is different. If you just take the time-shifting aspect of it alone, people get time-shifting.

Playlist: TiVo for radio.

Williams: Right, TiVo for radio, ‘oh that makes perfect sense.’ And if you start there, and say, well actually it’s like radio, but anyone can publish it; that’s another angle lots of people really get. And then it takes advantage of the whole iPod fervor that’s very well marketed and has a big cool factor that Blogging didn’t necessarily have. It was much more of a geeky thing that didn’t take advantage of some device like that, or some other marketing. As well as the timing factor that I was talking about earlier. From big media to the average consumer, the idea that I won’t just get my content from brand-name sources is much more acceptable idea now than it was five years ago.

Playlist: There was some flap about Odeo redirecting feeds, which I think you guys fixed immediately, or nearly immediately. How important is it to let your users define your best practices, to define your business?

Williams: I think getting feedback from your community and adjusting to it is important. Those are the people we want to make happy, clearly. I think it’s really tricky knowing what you could be forever reacting to every whim. The especially tricky thing is that some of the more vocal members of the community are leaders and have big needs, but they turn out to be edge cases. I see a lot of companies, web companies, 2.0 sort of companies that attract early adopters. and they listen to them and get feedback from them. But then they kind of get sucked into pleasing these early adopters, and the early adopter is really on the next curve. And that becomes a conflict when you’re trying to reach a much more mainstream audience.

For years Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing, was a Blogger user. And we really wanted to make Cory happy and he was a great user. But he so clearly did not reflect your average Blogger user that it wasn’t necessarily helpful after a while to make sure that it worked well for Cory, or that we had all the features that Cory needs. Because that meant that we did not have something much more basic that was maybe an ease of use thing that would make 100,000 more people in the world be able to use it in the first place, because we were concentrating on making something for Cory. You have to balance it.

Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.

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