iTunes 8.0 gets intuitive

Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a lot to announce at their annual fall party, including updates to the iTouch, new iPods, new software and capability for iPod Touch and iPhone products, the reintroduction of NBC programs to iTunes, HD television and movies, and a new version of iTunes (now 8.0) with some new features.

I like iTunes to sort my home music library and tune into online radio stations and the odd podcast, but that’s about it. I don’t buy music from their store because of their digital rights management restrictions, or buy television shows or movies when I can record them in my cable box. I don’t own an iPod because I’ve been waiting for an iPod with a built-in voice recorder — something you can now apparently do on iPhone and iPod Touch using third party software, but I’m waiting until it’s officially offered by Apple. It’s safe to say I use about 10 per cent of iTunes capability at this point.

Sometimes I also find iTunes kind of annoying. Never have I owned software that has been updated as frequently. iTunes was first released in 2001, and they’re already up to their eighth new iteration, iTunes 8.0, and each version has required several incremental updates and tweaks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s rare to go two months without an update of some kind, and for some reason all of the updates also seem to be huge downloads, usually in the tens of megabytes, instead of small fixes you see with other software. Usually you have to restart your computer, and when you reopen iTunes it’s impossible to tell what’s different.

The new version of iTunes is pretty much the same on the front end as previous versions, but with one interesting new feature, called Genius.

Apple is not the first company to come up with the idea of creating automated playlists of songs that sound alike, far from it, but like everything Apple does it will probably set the standard.

Basically, you can pick a song and click on the Genius button to generate a list of songs that are similar. If you’re in an ’80s heavy metal frame of mind you can click on Quiet Riot’s “Black Reign” and Genius will go presumably go through your collection to add Motley Crue, Killer Dwarves, WASP, Ratt, Def Leppard, etc. to your playlist.

Genius works by scanning your library, and presumably linking types of music in genres and sub genres based on Apple’s own database of music. Some services actually scan the peaks and valleys of the songs to determine things like beat rate, rhythm pattern, and tone in order to group music, and Apple probably has an algorithm that does something similar to tell the difference between slow songs and fast songs.

You have to activate the Genius feature, essentially giving Apple permission to scan all the songs in your library to create the database needed for Genius to work properly. The scan is apparently anonymous if you’re worried about somebody snooping through your music files, but you have to wonder if and when that information is going to be subpoenaed by the very paranoid music industry.

Reviews of Genuis are so far all over the map — sometimes it has been successful in generating appropriate playlists, and sometimes the recommendations are haphazard. A lot has to do with the size of your music collection, the songs you use to generate playlists, and how Genius interprets your search. For example, you might Genius a Black Sabbath song and come up with The Eagles instead of Metallica, presumably based on the fact that Black Sabbath and the Eagles are both classic rock from the same era and follow the same rock beat patterns.

Some users have also suggested that Genius only really works well with songs purchased from the Apple iTunes store or ripped from CDs, and may not recognize songs that you’ve downloaded or renamed and that it can’t immediately identify. New music that hasn’t been classified yet may also not show up.

I haven’t noticed that problem personally, but I’ve only tested it for a few days. I have noticed that a few songs are out of place, but here’s hoping future updates of Genius can be trained by pointing out these inconsistencies.

Overall, it beats clicking through 10 gigabytes of music files on your own, and it’s not a bad way to set the kind of mood you’re looking for. The main drawback in my mind is that you need to open an iTunes Store Account, credit card info and all, to use Genius, which means it probably won’t be long until Apple starts recommending songs to buy as well as the songs in your library.

Obviously they also want people to use the store more, and opening an account would be the first step for a lot of users. Once you give out that credit card information to a vendor the floodgates are open.

Interestingly, Microsoft introduced a similar service called MixView for its Zune customers that is reportedly superior to Genius. But with Zune capturing about five per cent of marketshare to Apple’s almost 75 per cent it’s a safe bet most of us will never use it.

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