As expected, today Apple launched a new version of iTunes to go along with their revamped iPod line, and during the Apple Event, Steve Jobs simply could not shut up about the newest iTunes feature: “Genius.”
What Genius does is analyze the music and video in your iTunes library (provided that you opt-in to the service, that is), and recommend other music and shows you might like, based on other users with similar tastes. It’s similar to the recommendation feature used by movie rental site Netflix and online “radio station” Pandora to help users find new movies and music.
First off, privacy concerns. While Genius very definitely collects your information and sends it to Apple, it’s not something that happens without you knowing it. Not only do you have to turn on Genius (after installing iTunes 8, natch) you have to agree to the TOS (which explains in relatively plain English how the service works), and you then have to sign into your iTunes store account. From there, Genius begins analyzing your music, which can take a while (my 26GB work library took about 15 minutes), but there’s a big fat “stop” button on the Genius page (which sits just below the Party Shuffle in the Playlists sidebar). The TOS notes that you can opt-out of Genius at any time and it’ll stop sending your data to Apple (but presumably they retain the data they have). You can use iTunes normally while Genius analyzes your music.
Genius consists of two components. One, it creates playlists based on music you already own, and second, it will suggest music you can buy from the Apple iTunes Store, either by the same artists, or tracks from that album you may be missing. The latter shows up in the Genius sidebar, which you can hide with a button click.
The Genius Playlist is set up like a smart playlist: you can limit the number of songs in it, refresh the list with new songs, or save it if you like the mix it creates. And I have to admit that on its first try, it didn’t do half bad: going from Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” into Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” into Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Not bad at all. Likewise, it did a good job of mixing Weezer into the Pixies into Modest Mouse and Cake.
But when you get into more… unusual… choices, Genius stumbles. It had no suggestions for a mix starting with William Shatner’s “Common People,” (but really, what could follow that?), but it was spotty when trying to build lists starting with They Might Be Giants. LP cuts it had no problem with, but more obscure tracks from EPs stopped it dead. If Genius can’t create a list, it advises you to try “updating Genius.” Apparently, the problem erupts if Genius can’t identify the track. It’s not just an issue of missing information, because it created playlists from certain tracks even if information (like the album) was missing. Genius will also not create playlists from tracks on an iPod hooked up through iTunes.
After playing with it for only a short time, though, I have to say I’m pretty impressed with Genius’s mixing skills. Except for one thing…
Genius doesn’t work with the Beatles. At all. Not the compilations, not with Abbey Road, not with “Hey Jude.” Which tells us that Genius is probably pulling its data from songs that you can buy from the iTunes store, or from ITMS customer recommendations.
The other notable change in iTunes 8 is a new way of viewing your album art: rather than shuffling through them (by far my favorite), you can now view them in a grid layout, sortable by Album, Artist, Genre and Composer. It’s a neat way of looking at things, kind of like hanging your album art on the wall, but not really that earth shattering.
Genius, however, is going to create a lot of interest, from people who want to find new music, those who want to laugh when it makes an inevitable ridiculous prediction, from privacy advocates (even though it’s an opt-in system), and from those who will criticize it as a tool for recommending “more of the same” while potentially ignoring more indie, unusual artists.