Why Apple may be buying Swell, what it could mean for podcasting

Swell_iPhone_pairApple rumor sites have been buzzing about Apple’s rumored plans to purchase Swell for $30 million, originally reported by Re/code. This could have huge implications to the Apple Podcasts app for iOS, as well as iTunes Radio and the whole Apple digital store ecosystem.

Swell is now gone

As of Tuesday, July 29, 2014, the Swell.am website has been replaced with a simple message:

Thank you

 Thank you for using Swell over the past year. We wanted to let you know that the Swell service is no longer available. We’ve been inspired by the opportunity to create quality products that positively impact users’ lives, and we are grateful to all our listeners. Thank you everyone for your support!

The Swell app has also been removed from Apple’s iOS app store.

You may still browse Swell’s website via Archive.org.

Why would Apple want Swell?

There are several reasons one company will buy another.

  1. Buyout the competition
  2. Acquire the technologies
  3. Increase reach
  4. Acquire the talent

I suspect that Apple’s main motives for buying Swell would be to acquire the technologies and talent for implementing into Apple’s own software and team.


What did Swell do?

Swell was a podcast player focused on discovery. Discovering new podcasts is not a problem for podcast-consumers, but it’s a perceived problem for podcast-makers. Podcasters want to be discovered, but consumers only want an easier way to get podcasts. So Swell’s intended purpose was quite unnecessary, especially since they were yet another app that would have to be found and installed.

Swell sought to be a fast, intelligent, and social podcast app. It featured a clean user interface and smart learning to recommend what else you would like based on your and your friends’ activities. It also featured multiple levels of human input rating to properly categorize and tag content.

How Swell could improve the Podcasts app

Apple’s Podcasts app for iOS has received massive criticism and an average 1.5 stars out of 5 in the App Store. (I personally use and enjoy this app and haven’t had many problems with it until only recently.)

Currently, Apple’s only recommendation engine is suggesting other podcasts that people have mutually consumed. This makes it entirely possible for Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF” to be recommended to subscribers of a clean-comedy podcast. Or a knitting show recommended to subscribers of a hardcore video-gaming show.

Swell learns tastes based on your consumption style, ratings, and other human input. This makes its recommendation engine more likely to recommend something you would like.

iOS 8 will make the Podcasts app for iOS a preinstalled and unremovable app for Apple’s mobile devices. I think Apple will incorporate this recommendation engine into the Podcasts app to improve the discovery experience, all before the public release of iOS 8 (probably late September).

A distant theory is that since Swell was also working on an Android app, Apple may be bringing a future Podcasts app to the Android platform. If this happens, Apple would easily dominate podcast consumption on their competitors mobile platform. (Google continues to do nothing for podcasters and even removed the horrible Google Listen podcasts app quite some time ago.)

It’s also likely that Apple will incorporate design and flow concepts from Swell in order to make Apple’s own Podcasts app easier to use.

How Swell could improve iTunes Radio

It’s no secret that Apple’s iTunes Radio service was another dud. Buzzfeed even reported that employees preferred Pandora or Spotify over iTunes Radio and that managers didn’t understand the industry trends and competition. Apple’s acquisition of Beats will help with this, and combining Swell’s technology could further the intelligence of iTunes Radio.

I’ve had my own negative experiences with iTunes Radio: disliked songs playing again (sometimes immediately after I disliked it), ignoring a preference against explicit content, and playing music that wasn’t anything like my preference.

But on the positive side, iTunes Radio is an Apple product, which allows it to be more integrated into iOS. I loved that I could like or dislike a song from the lock screen. With Pandora, I have to unlock my phone and reopen the Pandora app in order to like or dislike a song. But Pandora’s engine has always understood my likes much better.

Combine the intelligence of Swell and Beats, and iTunes Radio could become a legitimate competitor to Pandora.

How Swell could improve all of Apple’s iTunes stores

Apple has a lot to gain from an improved recommendation engine because Apple offers much more than podcasts and streaming music. Imagine how better recommendations could improve the Mac and iOS App Stores, the iBooks store, the music store, and the movie and TV store.

Apple has also recently acquired BookLamp, a recommendation engine for books. Do you see the “recommendation engine” trend in these acquisitions?

This would benefit everyone involved! Consumers would get better recommendations for stuff they would probably like, producers and developers would get more targeted and relevant exposure for their creations, and Apple would benefit by bringing more consumers to their ecosystem and profit from selling more.

I think we have our confirmations of this acquisition based on Swell’s website shut down and app removal. So what do you think Apple will do with the Swell team and technology?


  • Carles

    I loved this app. I think is good Apple bought it if they are going to improve their podcasts app with it.
    But meanwhile what we have left? Is there any other app there like swell? I tried stitcher and agogo, but they are not as simple nor as good. I just want and app that remember my taste.

    • http://DanielJLewis.net/about Daniel J. Lewis

      I think that Stitcher, Instacast, and Downcast are probably the closest for recommending other stuff you may like.