Monday, October 27, 2008

iTunes Genius Review

Over the past few days, the Genius feature introduced in iTunes 8 has been getting a lot of attention from me. I have a very high bar for a digital jukebox, and when it comes to iTunes, my evaluation of features is that much more critical because of my affiliation with the Zune PC client. With this being said, I am known to give everything a fair chance; read this with a grain of salt if you must.

On the whole, Genius is a great addition to iTunes. The idea of automatically generating "mashed up" playlists isn't a new one. I was first introduced to the idea via Predexis Music Match in Winamp a few years ago; right off the bat, I thought the idea of building playlists of similar songs from my library was way cool. Pandora was the natural evolution of the playlist mashup idea, and in my opinion, Pandora has revolutionized the way people listen to music. My only gripes with Pandora were that I had very little say in how Pandora picked the songs for me, and songs would repeat way too often. My patronage of these top-notch services meant that Genius had to exceed a high quality bar to win my approval.

Genius is pretty unobtrusive and simple to use - the EULA for Genius is short and clearly states that it transmits information to iTunes so that it can build playlists of similar music for you. All of this dialing back home purportedly stops when you disable Genius, so at the outset, this isn't a privacy nightmare. It appears to me that the Genius client within iTunes is very spartan - the iTunes server does the heavy-lifting of analyzing songs in the library and provides hints to Genius on how it can thread seemingly unrelated songs into playlists. As the iTunes server gets better at connecting songs to one another, everyone using Genius gets better recommendations, and as Genius feeds this information back to iTunes, the service gets better at making recommendations. All-in-all, this is a great feedback loop that constantly improves the system.

While this sounds good at first, the fact that the server does a lot of the processing of the library, it becomes the single point of failure in the system. If for some reason, I don't have access to the Internet, there is a good chance that Genius will not generate playlists for me. While using the feature, I also realized that some basic use-cases haven't been implemented. For instance, when I add a new song to the library, Genius doesn't incrementally update its database of recommendations for the new song added. This has two major consequences:

1. Clicking the Genius icon while playing the new song results in a message that informs me that the iTunes server needs to be contacted.
2. The new song doesn't appear in my current Genius playlist even if it is obvious that it is related to the playlist's source.

This is an easy fix for Apple to push through to users, and in general, Genius has made a good start. Here are the few things I really liked:
- The playlists it builds mostly contain related songs
- I can save a Genius playlist in my library, and can continue to refresh it (like a smart playlist). As Genius gets better at recommending songs to me, my lists can be refined. YAY!
- I can sync a genius playlist to my iPod
- Creating a new Genius playlist is EZ

Here are things I would improve moving forward:
- Adding a new song to my library should trigger a Genius update in the background
- Genius recommendations become dodgy after the 20th song in the playlist
- Genius should be extended to a more generic recommendation engine. Like Youtube recommends "Similar Videos", the iTunes store recommends "Similar Songs/Artists", and some Podcast directories now have the "Similar Podcasts" feature. The part about Podcasts is key, because they are hard to find to begin with. It's great when a friend recommends a Podcast, but getting such a recommendation from Apple too would add more meat to that suggestion.

If you've used the Zune's genius-like feature, please share your thoughts with me. Most importantly, mash your library up!!

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