Rumors swirled a few weeks ago that Apple would remove podcasts from the regular music app in iOS 6. But while the latter won't launch until the fall, there's apparently no time like the present: Apple quietly launched a dedicated iPhone and iPad app, colorfully named "Podcasts," in the App Store on Tuesday.
The new app looks pretty similar to its previous incarnation as part of the iTunes app, with one difference: a "subscribe" button. Once you've subscribed to a podcast, you can either stream an episode or download it for online listening (early buzz is that streaming works much better than it did in previous incarnations). Podcasts will sync your position between devices, so you can start listening to All Things Considered on your iPhone and finish it later on your iPad.
The other big new feature is podcast stations -- essentially, a way to organize popular podcasts into different genres to make it easier to discover new content. If you've just started listening to podcasts -- or are trying to find some new podcasts you've never heard before -- these stations should make things easy. A radio dial lets you scroll through different genres, many of which contain sub-genres (the Technology genre, for instance, includes Gadgets, Podcasting, Software How-To, and Tech News).
The Podcasts app is also in keeping with Apple's tendency toward skeuomorphic design (when a representation of an object keeps the design cues of the original -- like how the Mac's iCal digital datebook shows leather stitching along the top). In this case, tapping on a podcast's artwork shows a little reel-to-reel tape deck marking the podcast's progress. There are also buttons to change the playback rate, as well as a scrub bar and buttons to skip ahead by 30 seconds or back by 10. You can also set a sleep timer directly from the playback screen -- a thoughtful touch on Apple's part.
Rumors have hinted at this podcast app for quite some time, and this isn't the first time Apple has given a media type its own app: last year, the iTunes player app became two separate music and video apps. iBooks was a standalone app when it launched on the iPad in 2010, as well.
Readers: have you tried the new Podcasts app? Share your impressions in the comments section. And for more tech news, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.