Google has finally launched a standalone podcasts app in the Play Store, and it's simply called Google Podcasts. You can download it right now.
Back in April, Google had added Podcast functionality within its Search and Assistant products. You just needed to search for your favourite podcast and you would get it in a neatly laid out card format.
The Google Podcasts app simplifies things as you can have all your favourite podcasts in one location. The app is quite simple to use. After downloading, you will get a list of podcasts which you may have searched for and played in the past. There's a 'For You' section which is divided into three tabs, namely, 'New episodes', 'In Progress' and 'Downloads'. To help you get started, Google lists out top and trending podcasts in separate sections and also segregates them by into genres like Comedy, Society & Culture, News & Politics, Sports & Recreation and so on.
Each of these categories has around 10 podcasts for you to select from.
If you know which podcast you are looking for, simply type that out in the search bar on top of the app and you will be presented with cards pertaining to the podcast. A majority of the podcasts shown in the trending sections in my feed were American, but maybe that's down to my preferences. I would have certainly liked to see a few from India as well in the list. Interestingly, podcasts from countries like UK were also absent. For instance, the Guardian and BBC have several of their own podcasts, but you can only get to them if you are searching for them. Google says that over 2 million podcasts are available on its platform.
Having tried out the Google Podcasts app, the first thing that comes across is that the app is easy to use. The only thing you can do after subscribing to a podcast is either play the episode, download it or mark as played. Even the Settings menu only gives you the option to take actions on completed episodes and unfinished episodes. You can adjust the playback speed to up to 2x by actually going into the podcast that is currently being played.
But considering it's Google, I am sure there will be some additions to make the app more interesting, which would be in the works as well. The Google Podcasts app will sync your place in the podcast irrespective of device. For instance, you can start an episode of 99 Percent Invisible on your ride home, and then continue listening to it on your Google Home when you return.
According to Google, "While there are more podcasts than ever before, there continues to be an imbalance in who is creating them. Looking at top charts, only about a quarter of the most popular podcasts tend to be hosted by women, and even fewer by people of colour." To rectify this, Google is planning to partner with the podcast industry on programs to increase diversity in voices and remove any barriers to producing podcasts.
I hope Google has some plans for India too. In a country as diverse as ours (where public radio is either the government approved AIR or commercial FM, most of it is geared to play contemporary Bollywood hits), there is a huge opportunity. Plus, podcasting is at a nascent stage in India with limited players and few popular platforms, such as Saavn or Gaana, to listen to them on. A player like Google could really disrupt this space.
Some of the evolutionary features that Google plans to add to its Podcasts app include closed captioning and real-time translation. "As speech-to-text technology continues to improve, we’ll be able to provide new features like automatic subtitling, which is especially helpful if you are hearing impaired or in a noisy area without headphones. Powered by Google Translate, subtitles can then be made available in a wide variety of languages, further improving access to podcasts," said product manager for Google Podcasts, Zack Reneau-Wedeen.
After subscribing to my favourite podcasts last night and searching for podcasts that interest me, it looks like Google's AI has kicked in.
Now I am seeing suggestions from podcast networks I searched for and the genres I searched for. Google is even suggesting podcasts based on the ones I have already subscribed to, in the form of 'Popular with listeners of <insert podcast name>'.
Considering Google's prowess at getting AI right, I think this feature will make it stand out amongst the rest of the podcast apps. I liked the granular level at which you could adjust the speed of playback, instead of just the regular 1x, 1.5x, 1.75x and 2x options. There are around 16 speed options to choose from. The app is still not as detailed as some of the popular ones such as Pocket Cast, Overcast or Stitcher, but I don't think it will take a massive effort on Google's part to get to that point. And that should worry some of these podcast apps, especially the ones with premium pricing plans.
There are still things you can't do on Google Podcasts though. For instance, you can't make playlists of your favourite podcasts. There is no analytics on how many hours you have listened to or which podcasts you have listened to. (This is one feature I really like and has made me stick to Stitcher). This could be helpful as sometimes I just go to a podcast and search its back catalogue to listen to specific episodes. It would be great if Google Podcasts can let me know whether I have heard a particular podcast, long after it has been flushed out of my app.
I have not even started using the app as religiously as I use say Stitcher or Overcast, but I am already seeing my app populated with recommendations. This will keep getting better as I use the app more. I am eager to try out the continuity feature on Google Home, which so far offered a terrible podcast experience. But in the future, I am sure Google may add in some social element to this as well, such as an option to check out the podcasts my friends are listening to. I don't know if that will be allowed at the moment, but with Google, you cannot really say.
Google Podcasts should surely make listening to podcasts a lot easier. Its card-like podcast feature on Search and Assistant gets rid of a major entry barriers for podcasts. And with its AI-powered Podcasts app, Google could expose a large part of the smartphone-using population to the joys of podcasts.