Google is finally filling a major hole in its mobile offerings: a dedicated app for podcasts.
Though Google has long had podcast support in Google Play Music and, more recently, within the Google app, both of these experiences have felt clunky at best. Now the company is hoping to fill the gap with a very long overdue podcast app.
Launching today on Android, the company’s new Podcasts app feels like an app Google should have launched years ago. But, even though it’s coming late, it offers a promising window into why Google might still be able to make a difference in an area where so many competitors have a years-long head start.
Heavy on content, but light on features
The biggest selling point of Google Podcasts is the size of its catalog. Because the app automatically pulls in everything that’s indexed by Google, it has a much more thorough catalog, with about 2 million podcasts, according to product manager Zack Reneau-Wedeen.
“We even have the people who are too lazy to put it on Tunes,” he told Mashable. And while many people will likely be looking for the bigger-name shows, it should be equally easy to find shows with smaller followings.
Despite the large number of shows, the app itself is pretty simple. You can search for and subscribe to podcasts, and shows you follow will appear in a queue on the app’s home screen. If you don’t know what you want to listen to, you can scroll down on the home screen to see recommendations based on trending and popular podcasts in different categories.
In the beginning these will be generic recommendations based on what’s popular, but they’re supposed to get more personal over time once the app learns your tastes. I’ve only been using the app for a couple of days, but in the short time I was using it, I could already see my suggestions improving.
You’re going to want these suggestions, by the way, because it’s the only way to discover new stuff in the app. Unlike Apple’s Podcasts app, there are no charts to peruse (perhaps understandable, considering Google Podcasts has only just launched), or ratings and reviews to check out.
What you see on the home screen is pretty much what you get: search, subscriptions, and recommendations. There are the basic playback controls, so you can skip ahead or rewind a few seconds, and you can adjust the playback speed (an essential feature for the especially dedicated podcast addicts who listen at two or three times the normal speed).
Interestingly, one of the app’s best features is one that’s easy to miss: its integration with Google Assistant. Because the app is tied to your Google account, the Assistant can help you pick up where you left off on a podcast regardless of what device you’re using. This is particularly useful if you have a Google Home speaker, because it makes it easy to transition to listening from your phone to your Google Home.
Still, many features you’d take for granted on a podcast app, like automatically downloading subscriptions, are frustratingly absent — at least for now.
Reneau-Wedeen notes that more features, including some geared more toward “power users,” will be added in future updates and emphasizes that this initial release is meant to be “a jumping-off point.”
It’s all about the future
It’s taken Google a long time to finally launch a dedicated app for podcasts (the company used to have an app called Google Listen, which was shut down way back in 2012), and some may be disappointed with how simple the app is, given the long wait.
But while other apps might have more features, Google does offer a compelling vision for what a podcast app can be, thanks to tie-ins with some of the other things the company tends to be really good at.
Like what? Like voice recognition. One feature Reneau-Wedeen says Google is currently experimenting with is an automatic transcription feature for podcasters, so they could offer their podcasts in text form if they wished. This is an area Google is better positioned than any other podcast platform.
Transcriptions have long been a vexing problem for podcasters as most services are either expensive, inaccurate, or both. If Google could use its machine-learning prowess to make transcriptions automatic, it would be game-changing from an accessibility point of view alone. But it goes farther than that.
Transcriptions would improve the searchability of podcasts as people would be able to search based on the contents of a podcast, not just the basic details like title, category, and guests.
“It starts to get even cooler when you think about some of the basic features you can build,” Reneau-Wedeen says. “One of them is closed captioning — the ability follow along with a transcript of a podcast. That ladders up to the next step, which is using Google Translate to show closed captions in any language.”
Of course, these features are still a ways off — Reneau-Wedeen declined to provide a specific timeline of when transcriptions and other advanced features appear. But the promise alone makes Google Podcasts worth paying attention to.
For now, Google Podcasts is pretty basic. But, for the longest time, Apple’s Podcasts app was too, and since Google’s offering is ideal for people who are relatively new to podcasts, it could open up the medium to a whole new audience on Android. And if Google is serious about giving the app the runway it needs, it’s not a stretch to imagine a future version where the Google Podcasts experience becomes the one to beat.