Feature Review: Apple’s Genius Sidebar in iTunes

Apple have created another cool idea. The “genius sidebar” in iTunes. I think it’s a fairly simple, but remarkable addition to the features within iTunes. I doubt that it (or this post) will cause any major social changes, but as ever, it will influence a very small pocket of “early adopters” who will in turn spread the word to others and cause small but subtle changes in people’s overall expectations for how music players should fit into their lives.
What is the genius sidebar?

A few things. For one, it is clearly a way for Apple to sell more music downloads. The sidebar looks for items that are related to the very song you are listening to. So this morning, as I was listening to “We Need a Resolution” off Aaliyah’s album, the genius sidebar was telling me what Aaliyah’s top albums are, the top Aaliyah songs that are not in my library and recommendations for songs by other artists that I might like.

This should be no surprise to anyone who understands interactive marketing. It’s Amazon-esque technology making it’s way into your computer’s music player. (Forgive my ignorance if there is, or has been, an equivalent function in another one of the major music players).

For those that don’t, this minor change increases Apple’s sales by making music that you’d like more findable and therefore more accessible to spend your money on. Why I think this is significant movement is the fact that, unlike Amazon, iTunes knows every single piece of music that I have in my possession, (Note: This may not be the case for everyone, but I think that it’s safe to assume that a good proportion of the people that download music legally are using iTunes (and certainly a good proportion of those that aren’t doing it legally as well) because of it’s link to the iPhone and iPod, or by virtue of the fact that it is the native player in the Apple OS) and can therefore can compare my data with the data they have on people that own or buy music similar to mine. This means they can make recommendations to me, like Amazon does, but with relative confidence that they are showing me highly relevant music for me to buy.

More importantly, they have information about how often I’ve listened to certain music and how recently I’ve listened to it, which they can use to improve the quality of those recommendations, but that they can also use this knowledge to deliver a better experience for me as a serious music lover. In addition to the genius sidebar (which is effectively an iTunes store widget that they’ve added to the main music window), there is a genius button that adds something very cool to iTunes.

Say you’re listening to “A Funky Space Reincarnation” by Marvin Gaye (which is what’s on as I type this post). Press the genius button and iTunes immediately configures a playlist made up of a mix of songs that are related to that song. For me this means I’ve got “Get Up” by Amel Larrieux next, followed by “Playing Your Game Baby” by Barry White and then “I Wanna Be Where You Are” by the Jackson 5. Already I’ve heard a song by Kelis called “Attention” which was very cool and that I don’t think I’d ever really payed much attention to.

As a music lover with a pretty big music collection, I appreciate a feature like this as it gives me a highly relevant mix of music for just about any mood. I often come into work having listened to “Live” by Donny Hathaway and want more of the same feeling, but don’t want to repeat the same album I just listened to for the last hour. I’ll spend a few minutes doing searches and trying to make a little playlist but can’t really justify spending 30 minutes preparing “music to work to” when I have so much work to do.

From an interactive perspective, this is a fantastic thing for Apple to do. They’ve combined my vast music collection, my love of new music, my need to listen to music that matches my immediate mood and their need to sell me tracks at £.79 a piece into a nice little feature. I get something that adds to my daily life and they will unlikely see an increase in music sales.

Apple doesn’t get everything right, but they always show amazing insight into how their products fit into their customers lives. I would challenge anyone who is trying to grab hold of “what Web 3.0 will be” to look at features, services and even entire new business models that are about taking the massive amounts of information that are making their way to the web, creating connections between them, and then using them to enhance people’s lives in very subtle but useful ways.

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