iTunes 'Genius' feature is pure genius

September 12, 2008: 12:33 PM ET
The standout new feature in iTunes 8 is Genius, which builds music playlists based on the listening habits of the iTunes community. Image: Apple

It took me a while to get around to it, but I've finally downloaded the iTunes 8 update, and played around a bit with the Genius song recommendation feature. After a test drive, I've decided it's the best thing Apple has (AAPL) added to its music management suite in quite a while.

Genius solves my "iTunes laziness" problem. I've got 4,000 items in my library, I listen to genres as diverse as gospel, alternative and hip-hop, to and I'm too lazy to make good playlists out of it all. I used to count on the Party Shuffle feature to save me, but got tired of how it would end up throwing in random Christmas carols at the wrong times of year.

It works by tapping into the wisdom of crowds. After I click on a favorite song from when I was dating my wife – "Ordinary" by Train, from the "Spider-Man 2" soundtrack – and click the Genius button, Apple suggests a playlist based on the scanned libraries and listening habits of other iTunes users. (Among the good picks: "Dare You To Move" by Switchfoot, "I Alone" by Live, "The Freshmen" by The Verve Pipe, and "Send Me On My Way" by Rusted Root. Mostly angsty alternative songs from the '90s. Cool.)

A couple of reasons Genius is a good move for Apple, business-wise:

One, it encourages people with decent-sized iTunes libraries to listen more. I suspect that these folks are the most likely candidates to upgrade to newer iPods, and if they're rediscovering their music collections they're more likely to do that.

Two, it increases the "stickiness" of iTunes, and decreases the likelihood that I'll switch to some other service. It's like a moat around iTunes and the iPod, keeping would-be invaders out.

That said, the Genius isn't perfect. Some of its picks are a little weird – like the Billy Joel song it squeezed between Augustana and The Verve Pipe. And while I'm glad Apple allows you to save Genius playlists, I think it's annoying that it saves them as a new type of list that doesn't sync to older iPods. (I can easily copy and paste the songs by hand into an old-school sync-able playlist, but I shouldn't have to.)

But overall, Apple is making great use of the computing power in its data centers to unobtrusively provide a feature that any music lover will understand. If Steve Jobs and the rest of the crew can figure out how to tap their 65 million iTunes account holders and provide more features like this, they'll probably have my business for a long time..FT)

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