Apple is looking to patent a system for publishing, subscribing to and managing podcasts. Some of the patent filing components sound like features that are already available in iTunes, but it's a fairly safe bet that Apple has even more in mind.
The patent abstract states "Improved podcasts and techniques that facilitate their use are disclosed. The improved techniques can pertain to creating, publishing, hosting, accessing, subscribing, managing, transferring, and/or playing podcasts. According to one aspect, a client application can subscribe to podcasts and then automatically monitor the podcasts for updates to be downloaded. In the event that user interest in a podcast becomes inadequate, downloading of further updates can be restricted. According to another aspect, a podcast can be subscribed to through use of a portable subscription file. According to still another aspect, podcast feeds can be enhanced to include segment elements and other metadata."
The filing describes a process for monitoring podcasts to determine if the subscriber is still interested, and can automatically set a podcast as inactive. The system can monitor podcast activity both on your computer and portable media players.
The patent filing also details a system for submitting podcasts for distribution and makes several references to "media management" applications. The filing doesn't state what that application might be, so it's possible Apple is considering adding podcast management and submission support to iTunes for podcasters. If so, that could save podcasters several steps in upload and RSS management process.
The term "media store server" appears in the filing in association with podcast submission, possibly indicating that Apple is planning on getting into the podcast hosting market. Currently, the iTunes Store simply links to podcasts that are hosted on other servers.
Apple already offers podcast subscription support in iTunes, playback support in iTunes and the iPod, basic authoring support in GarageBand, and podcast production, publishing and distribution in its Podcast Producer product. Apple could simply be protecting the applications it has already developed, or it could be looking at protecting something new that makes podcasting easier.