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July 7, 2005 6:58 pm

Paul Taylor: Tools for beginners’ blogs and podcasts

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The web continues to spawn new ways to communicate, including “blogs” (online diaries or web logs) and “podcasts” (content ready for download on to a portable digital media player).

Blogs are evolving into important research and business tools, shaping public debate and influencing other media. They are going mainstream, thanks to mostly free software and services designed to make it easier to create, search and receive information through blogs and podcasts.

A growing number of companies have begun to use blogs to disseminate information quickly and easily throughout an organisation, encourage internal debate or keep partners and suppliers updated automatically on developments using an associated technology called Really Simple Syndication.

Almost anyone can create an online blog, mainly because of the free tools and web space offered by internet portals. They include Google’s blogging software, Blogger (www. blogger.com ); Yahoo’s recently launched trial blog service, Yahoo! 360 (360.yahoo.com ); MSN Spaces (spaces.msn.com ); and Lycos’s Tripod service (www.tripod.lycos.com ).

All are designed to appeal to consumers but there is also a wide range of web publishing software designed to let business users create blogs. These include Six Apart’s Moveable Type 3.17 (www.sixapart.com ), $70 for a basic version supporting up to five authors; and Squarespace (www.squarespace.com ), from $7 a month, which can handle everything from blogs and business documents to personal images and can be as professional or personal as you want. Six Apart also offers a hosted blog service and software, Typepad, costing from $4.95 a month and aimed at consumers.

I downloaded trial versions of Typepad and Squarespace and found both easy to set up and use. Both include templates to help the beginner and slick, powerful tools that set them apart from the free services. But the novice blogger will not be disappointed by the free online hosted services. MSN Space is the easiest to use, especially for uploading large numbers of digital images. The MSN Space interface is particularly easy to use – you can be posting your first basic blog in less than 60 seconds.

Most offer wysiwig features that enable blog creators to preview the site. All allow blog viewers to post comments and responses – the cornerstone of blog interactivity.

MSN Spaces and Google Blogger let users choose from a selection of blog templates that make it easy to get started and create professional looking blogs without technical expertise.

MSN, Google and Yahoo blog tools all make it simple to add photographs and links to other web pages as well as post basic text. MSN Spaces goes a step further, enabling users to add digital images, lists of web links and a Windows Media music playlist from the main editing screen.

With MSN Spaces it is easy to add an RSS feed – a clickable link that shows on your site and allows visitors to receive new postings automatically with an RSS reader such as NewsGator (www.newsgator.com ), a free software download that integrates with Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail software and delivers news and new blog postings straight to users’ Outlook inboxes. It also offers a low-cost business version to help employees follow breaking news and information on competitors or from their own internal corporate blogs.

For blog consumers, there are specialised blog search tools that make it easier to locate information from the estimated 10m blogs authored in the US alone. My favourites include Bloogz (www.bloogz.com ); Feedster (www.feedster.com ); and Technorati (www.technorati.com ). Feedster, indexing more than 10.8m feeds, is very easy to use. Technorati claims to track 12.6m sites and 1.2bn links (so far) and has a bright, fun interface that highlights the top searches over the past hour.

Bloggers added audio and video content to their sites, which led to podcasting, one of the web’s fastest growing phenomena. It is a means of distributing audio and other media content on the internet using RSS for playback on a desktop PC or portable digital media player such as an Apple iPod. To create audio content, you need a noise- cancelling, microphone- equipped headset and a free cross-platform recording software package, such as Audacity 1.2.3 (audacity. sourceforge.net).

While I have yet to find a podcasting service as easy to use as MSN Space, integrated podcast creation tools and services are emerging. Audioblog (www.audioblog.com ) is one of the best, allowing users to record and upload MP3 or WAV audio files and video content to hosted sites as podcasts. Audio podcasts can last up to one hour and can even be posted using mobile phones.

Podcasts range from homemade recordings to sophisticated feeds supplied by television and radio broadcasters. You subscribe to podcasts with free audio- friendly RSS “aggregator” software, such as Doppler Radio (www.dopplerradio.net ); Ipodder (www.ipodder.sourceforge.net ); and Nimiq (http://nimiq.nl ). Sites such as PodcastAlley (www.podcastalley.com ) and Podscape (www.podscape.com ) help find podcasts.

The podcast subscriptions you create will be updated automatically with the most recent podcast. Most aggregators automatically load podcasts on to your iPod. Alternatively you can listen on a PC or put them manually on another portable audio player.

Apple Mac users can download iPodderX (ipodderx.com ), the first and probably the best media aggregator for the Mac. Depending on which feeds you subscribe to, the latest version of iPodderX will deliver audio, movies, images, documents and any other kind of file to your computer.

Most significantly, Apple Computer entered the podcasting market last week with iTunes 4.9 (www.apple.com ), the latest version of Apple’s free desktop media player. As well as enabling users to subscribe, manage and listen to podcasts through iTunes, Apple is making thousands of pre-approved podcasts available for free download from the iTunes online music store.

Visitors can search for particular podcasts and then either download a podcast file or subscribe to the podcast feed and receive updates as they become available. While anyone can submit a podcast to Apple, they will not be available for download until they are approved.

paul.taylor@ft.com

THE BLOG AND PODCAST BOOM

• A growing number of companies are creating blogs and podcasts.

• Blog visitors can now locate relevant information much more easily using specialist search tools such as Bloogz, Feedster and Technorati.

• Podcasting – distributing audio and other media content on the internet – is one of the web’s fastest-growing features.

• Podcast creation and service tools – one of the best is Audioblog – are starting to emerge. Podcasts can be found via sites such as PodcastAlley or Podscape.

• Apple Computer jumped into the podcasting market last week with the launch of iTunes 4.9.

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