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Apple's Genius music recommendations offer mixed results

September 11, 2008 |  3:11 pm
Steve Jobs

Apple is receiving mixed reviews for its Genius software feature that Steve Jobs unveiled Tuesday. Genius comes with the latest version of iTunes.

The service first scans your music library. Then, when you pick a particular song, Genius generates a playlist of 25 other songs that it deems related. It also suggests songs that it considers missing from your digital music collection and, of course, offers to sell them to you right there through iTunes. An Apple executive told me at the event that he was skeptical at first about how useful Genius would be, but he used the service to program the music for his 20th high school reunion.

I tried out Genius and found that it worked well with rock, helping me rediscover my own library and uncover its limitations. But the service seems to stumble with older music in genres such as jazz and classical. When I asked Genius to work its magic on Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," it generated an error message saying it couldn't create a playlist. And it looks like others, such as ReadWriteWeb, have had similar experiences with Genius.

I got the same error message with Dusty Springfield's classic "The Look of Love." The sidebar did, however, tell me that I'm missing a bunch of Springfield classics such as "Take a Little Piece of My Heart" (How did I let this happen?) and 15 other songs by various artists that ...

... I might want to buy to complete the mood.

This could be addictive, as well as lucrative for Apple and the music industry. Jobs said Tuesday that iTunes has 65 million accounts with credit cards stored, and he reminded us that those 65 million people are only one click away from buying music. "This has enabled us to be the No. 1 music distributor in any format in the world," he said.

Couple that one-click purchase ability with the fact that iTunes is the tool millions of people use to manage their music libraries, and Genius could prompt a lot more buying.

Apple is late to the music recommendation party, as Nicholas Carr points out. And Genius doesn't provide what many online music fans have come to expect -- the ability to listen to recommended songs in their entirety, for free, before deciding whether to make a purchase. (Apple will let you sample 30 seconds.) What's more, there's no social networking; unlike recommendation and playlist services offered by sites such as Imeem, Last.fm, Playlist.com, Pandora and iLike, Apple's Genius offers no interaction with others and no exploration of other people's playlists via iTunes.

"Apple's job is to sell hardware," said Martin Stiksel, co-founder of Last.fm. "It's not going to make the most incredible music experience. ITunes is not a website, it's a media player. There's no social aspect to it."

But maybe iTunes doesn't need to be social. It just has to make Genius more genius.

-- Michelle Quinn

Photo: Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs introducing new products, including Genius. Credit: Monica M. Davey / EPA

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