Introducing ZDNet's 'PhotoCasts'. Tell us what you think.

Last week, I published what amounts to the missing manual when it comes to connecting a notebook computer to the Internet through a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Perhaps proving that a picture is actually worth 100 words, that missing manual included almost 4000 words of text and almost 40 distinctly separate pictures.

Download this PodcastLast week, I published what amounts to the missing manual when it comes to connecting a notebook computer to the Internet through a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Perhaps proving that a picture is actually worth 100 words, that missing manual included almost 4000 words of text and almost 40 distinctly separate pictures.   Trust me, if I stuck to the "picture worth a thousand words" rule, four pictures would have not done the missing manual any justice.  I'm not even sure that my sea of text with link-outs to the photos does the process justice.  So, this was a perfect opportunity for me to try out what could turn out to be a new publishing medium -- something I'm calling a "photocast."

In a nutshell, a photocast is exactly like a podcast except for the fact that, in addition to the audio you get with a podcast, you also get still images.   So, in this case,  instead of a 4000 word manual to describe one little tiny feature, you get a 7MB downloadable visual walkthrough that you can fast forward or pause at any moment. 

In this photocast, the images switch back and forth between screenshots of what's happening on my notebook computer and photographs of what's happening on the smartphone.  Inclusion of photos (as opposed to just having screenshots) is one reason I didn't start out screencasting (a fantastic medium that InfoWorld's Jon Udell has used to do some awesome editorial coverage).  During this photocast, I also inserted a bit of commentary as it moves along.  For example, I point out where there's room for improvement in confusing dialogs as well as in the XV6600's industrial design. 

Photocasts are also like a podcasts in that you can receive them automatically by way of RSS subscription.  In fact, if you're already subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, then this particular photocast should automatically get downloaded to your PC by way of that subscription as long as your podcatching software (iPodder, iTunes, etc.) isn't filtering the downloads on the basis of their filetype (eg: it will download any type of file, not just an audio file). 

Choice of filetypes is where the idea of photocasts venture off into uncharted territory. There are several important factors to consider when attempting to produce a photocast.  First of all, if you intermingle them in the same RSS feed as podcasts, your users may run into a compatibility issue once the file reaches its final destination.  When using the MP3 audio file format with podcasts, you're virtually guaranteed that playback is possible, wherever the file ends up.  Almost every device out there that's capable of multimedia playback is also capable of playing back an MP3 file. 

But, once you go beyond audio , all bets are off.  Screencasts, for example, are done in Flash.  The problem with Flash is that, whereas virtually every PC can handle it (Windows, Mac, Linux), almost no mobile device has built-in support for it (in some cases, you can download the software).   The same problem also exists for Real's digital video formats.  This leaves you with three other choices: Microsoft's Windows Media Video format,  Apple's Quicktime, or the more standard MPEG-4.  

For me, and perhaps for other publishers (and also as a feather in the cap of Microsoft's media juggernaut), the choice between these was a no-brainer. Although there are rumors that things are about to change, Apple's QuickTime currently has the same problem that Flash does. It's not supported in the majority of mobile devices (including all of Apple's iPods) that are out there.  MPEG-4 wasn't an option because no tool was jumping out at me as being the obvious choice for producing a photocast. This left me with Microsoft's Windows Media format.   Not only can most PC users out there play it back without a hitch, but it can also be played back on many of the mobile devices in the market (without adding new software) including PDAs and smartphones based on Microsoft's PocketPC operating system as well as on certain devices from mobile media player manufactuers such as iRiver an Creative Labs.   In other words, when a publisher is looking to target desktops, notebooks, and mobile devices, the Windows Media ecosystem is the most evolved of alternatives.  

As icing on the cake, Microsoft makes producing photocasts using the Windows Media Video format a piece of cake using a freely downloadable piece of software called Photo Story.  All you need are the digital photos that you're going to string together and a microphone.  For you gearheads out there, Photo Story can also be used in conjuction with RSS subscription in a way that your family members can just subscribe to a feed and you can pump slide shows through that feed, complete with cool background music.  For example, here's a test photocast I did of my nine-month-old daughter with some background music. The filesize is 1.72MB and I've programmed it for playback in a 320x240 window which means that it will playback perfectly on most Windows Mobile devices.  If my family members had the right podcatching software, then this video would automatically show up for playback on their PCs as well as any Windows Mobile-based devices (I'm about to test some podcatching software for my smartphone).  Now, instead of walking around with photos in my wallet, I'm walking around with photocasts on my smartphone that really bring my family members to life for me and others who say "OK, show me some pictures").

Earlier this year, when I asked whether or not Microsoft's monoculture would take the 'pod' out of podcasting, I alluded to the fact that ZDNet would at some point stretch beyond audio and begin casting other forms of multimedia (sidebar: Dan Farber thinks we should refer to podcasting with the more device neutral "audiocasting") .  In that story, I talked about how the very path I just described -- the one where Windows Media Video was the most logical path for publishers of multimedia content to take -- could be the tide turner that reverses Apple's fortunes with its lineup of iPods.  If it was just as easy for me to publish this in MPEG-4, I would have.  If you know of an easy way to do that (easier than my current approach), please share it with me and your fellow readers using our comments section below.  Also, feel free to share your thoughts and opinions of ZDNet's first foray into photocasting.


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