SAN FRANCISCO - Hoping to tune into the latest craze in digital media, Yahoo Inc. is introducing tools for finding, organizing and rating "podcasts" - the audio programs designed to be played on Apple Inc.'s iPod and many other portable music players.
The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, which operates the world's most visited Web site, plans to begin testing the new service Monday at http://podcasts.yahoo.com.
Although it can do several things, the free service focuses on making it easier for people to sift through the tens of thousands of podcasts currently available on the Web to find the programming best suited to their personal interests.
"We intend to be the most comprehensive source for podcast content," said Geoff Ralston, Yahoo's chief product officer.
But Yahoo is the first Internet heavyweight to tackle the task. "We feel like we are really getting ahead of the curve with this," Ralston said.
It's only a matter of time before Yahoo's rivals, including online search engine leader Google Inc., introduce similar podcasting features, predicted Phil Leigh, an analyst for Inside Digital Media in Tampa, Fla.
"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the future of search is in audio and video. Searching through text on the Internet has really reached a maturity point," he said. "If you look 10 years down the road, everyone is going to be searching for podcasts."
All the major search engines are adding more bells and whistles in an effort to retain and attract visitors. The traffic is crucial because the search engines need a substantial audience to continue generating the ad sales that account for most of their profits.
Yahoo estimates that up to 5 million people currently listen to podcasts, which run a gamut of topics. Everything from the president's weekly address to ordinary citizens ranting about their pet peeves are available on podcasts.
The potential market is much larger. Apple so far has sold more than 20 million iPods, accounting for about three-fourths of the MP3 players in the United States.
But the podcasting phenomenon remains a mystery to most of the country - something that Yahoo believes it can change by delivering more comprehensive search results and enabling users to store the podcasts in their computer's music players, including Apple's iTunes and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Player in addition to Yahoo's.
That way, people can listen to the podcasts at their convenience, even if they don't have an iPod or another portable device that plays MP3 audio files.
Besides the iPod, Yahoo's service also is compatible with the iRiver player, Dell Inc.'s DJ and Creative Technology Ltd.'s Zen.
Yahoo's service is built strictly for listeners. Unlike Odeo's site, Yahoo isn't providing any tools for creating podcasts, although there are plans to do so eventually, said Joe Hayashi, Yahoo's director of product management.
"This is all about discovery for now," Hayashi said. "Step One is all about growing the ecosystem."