Google Podcasts app review

Apple has essentially owned podcasts since their inception. Hell, even the format’s name betrays its close tie to the company’s once ubiquitous player. At best, Google has reluctantly embraced the form, incorporating podcasts into the broader scope of Play, leading many of Android’s billions of users to rely on third-party solutions.

There are plenty of solutions out there, of course — Stitcher, Overcast, Pocket Casts — seemingly as many as there are podcasts. For whatever reason, Google has seemed content to let the competition own the category. Until now, that is. The company just dropped the simply titled “Podcasts.” It’s exactly what you’d expect from Google — a straightforward listening and browsing experience that prioritizes discovery above all else.

I asked Google why it was so late to the draw in terms of fully embracing the medium. I never really got a great answer on that front, but a rep told me the company was driven to create the new standalone app thanks to the “explosion of creativity” that’s occurred in the past few years. Fair enough. The category is undeniably in the midst of a renaissance, making it one of the most exciting entertainment and informational mediums in the world today.

And with its longtime goal of “organizing the world’s information,” certainly Google is well-positioned to provide a unique service for the 500,000+ active podcasts out there. The new app’s mission statement is, fittingly, to “make it really easier for them to discover and listen to the podcasts they love.”

With that in mind, the app’s discovery mechanism is framed differently than Apple’s. In recent years, Cupertino has pushed toward curation, hiring editors to determine which properties to promote in its various channels. In the case of the iOS podcast app, that generally means that the most popular programs are pushed to the top. Publishers like NPR or ESPN tend to get preferential treatment. And the algorithms that control the top podcast lists are anyone’s guess.

That’s all well and good for first-time listeners. That manner of curation generally does a good job assuring that featured shows adhere to a certain expectation of quality. But podcasting is among the most intimate forms of communication — a proxy for a close conversation with friends. Certainly it stands to reason that recommendations ought to be tailored to listeners in a way that respects that relationship.

Of course, the first time you log into the app, Google’s recommendations are anything but. The page that greets you is fairly generic. You’ve got all of the usual “top podcast” subjects in there — This American Life, Radiolab, Serial. You know the deal — if your parent who’s never listened to a podcast has brought it up in casual conversation, it’s probably in there.

Once you start subscribing to shows, however, the home page shifts accordingly. According to Google, “a few factors, such as your listening habits and the podcasts you subscribe to.” That means, theoretically, that it continues to get better the more shows you listen to and subscribe — and the more others use it, as well.

I’ve only had a short time with the app; so far recommendations still feel a bit generic — things like “Top Podcasts by NPR” and “Popular with Listeners of Stop Podcasting Yourself.” There are also kinks here — my friend Robin does the alternative comics podcast Inkstuds, so the app recommended a bunch of other shows by people also named Robin. That strikes me as a very strange way to choose podcasts. Maybe it’s just me.

There’s also no rating system on-board yet. The feature is likely coming, and will probably go a ways toward helping customize those recommendations. It’s one of a number of features that just weren’t ready at launch time. Google’s also experimenting with speech to text podcast transcriptions as a way of both providing additional metadata to crawl and offering up future features like closed captioning for users with hearing loss. That could be big for a larger potential audience that simply isn’t served by the audio-based format.

There’s a lot of room for improvement here, but Podcasts is a solid first effort. The interface is packed without being overwhelming. The shows you subscribe to populate a grid up top. Below this, they’re separated by New Episodes, In Progress and Downloads. It’s a nice way of serving up a lot of information, all at once, unlike the Apple app, which seems to make that more difficult with each update.

When a show is playing, it pops up in a small field at the bottom of the screen, which you can swipe up to enlarge. There’s a time scrubber, 10-second rewind and 30-second fast-forward. And yes, there’s a speed feature, for all you weirdos who listen to podcasts at 2x. Google’s offered a lot of customization on that front, with 15 different time increments between 0.5 and 2.0 speed.

There isn’t a lot to distinguish Podcasts, but it’s a solid first stab at the category. Google would likely be the first to admit that there’s room for improvement here, and based on my conversations with the company, it seems they have a lot planned on that front. Among other things, the company is looking into offering deeper analytics like the kind Apple recently rolled out.

In the meantime, it’s certainly worth the download for Android users who have been looking for another way to listen to their stories. And if you’re looking for a place to get started, why not check out one of these fine TechCrunch podcasts

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Alexa for hotels lets guests order room service, control in-room smart devices


Enlarge (credit: Amazon)

Hotel rooms will serve as the newest homes for Amazon’s Alexa starting this summer. Amazon announced a special version of its virtual assistant, Alexa for Hospitality, that will live across Echo devices placed in hotels, vacation rentals, and other similar locations.

Alexa in these devices will be able to do special things for both hospitality professionals and their customers. Amazon claims its Alexa for Hospitality experience will let hotel professionals “deepen engagement” through its voice controls that customers can use. Hotels can also customize some of the experience that they want their customers to have by choosing default music services, creating special Alexa Skills that only their guests can use, and monitor device online status and other connectivity issues.

Guests staying in a room with an Echo device will likely find the experience either convenient or invasive. Guests can ask Alexa to do things like order room service, answer questions about hotel services, control some in-room connected devices like lights and blinds, and more. Alexa Skills will also be available, so guests can use a Skill such as Flight Tracker to check the status of their flight before checking out.

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Amazon rolls out Hub delivery lockers to apartment buildings across the country


Hub by Amazon has been around for about a year now. The company introduced its package delivery lockers for apartment dwellers with little fanfare, as it no doubt worked out some of the kinks in the process. This morning, it seems, the company is finally ready to officially announce the product, as it begins rolling service out across the country.

The whole thing isn’t too different from what Amazon’s offered for a while with its locker delivery locations. Here, however, the bins are located inside of apartment buildings, with access available through a key pad. The idea is to save people from having to wait for a delivery from building staff or adjust their hours so they can be home to greet the delivery person.

As a resident of an apartment building who regularly finds himself greeted with a missed delivery slip and a long line at the local post office, it’s an idea I can get behind. And honestly, I’m not a huge fan of entrusting front door (or car) access to Amazon — or anyone else for that matter. How well the whole thing will handle irregularly sized packages, on the other hand, is another question entirely.

What’s really interesting in this whole bit of news is that it’s not an Amazon-only deal. The company says it will work with “deliveries from any sender.” So, why go with Amazon versus numerous other companies that offer similar services? No doubt the price is right on this one. Amazon’s always done a great job undercutting the competition, and Hub will no doubt be any different. It’s also providing 24 hour support for the system.

The company says the service is already available to 500k residents, with “thousands more” gaining access to one every month.

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Netflix resurrects Lucifer following Fox cancellation

Last month, Fox revealed that it wasn’t going to renew Lucifer for a fourth season. The news upset fans who, despite the series short run, had grown fond of the show and its relatively unique story. Here to save the day is Netflix, which has acquired Lucifer and promised to give fans, at minimum, a fourth season. The show was … Continue reading