Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Making iTunes More Social

Listening to music has always been a social activity: going to concerts with friends, playing favorite tunes on a jukebox in a bar or restaurant, slow-dancing with a special someone to “your” song. But as music has migrated from record players to CD players to the hard drives on our computers, we often find ourselves sitting alone in front of a monitor, grooving solo as we read through emails or browse the Internet.

The truth is that there aren’t many options for social networking in the most popular music software program, Apple’s iTunes. You can rate songs and even submit reviews of albums, or favorite song mixes (called “iMixes”) that will show up in the iTunes Store, and a feature called the iTunes MiniStore tracks your purchased music, making attempts to suggest other songs that you might like.

But these activities are like solitary confinement for teens who have MySpace and Facebook Web sites where photos, blog entries and lists of friends are constantly shared. ITunes doesn’t offer any obvious opportunities for real-time interaction so as to see what others are listening to or who their favorite artists are.

ILike, a free downloadable software program, brings social networking to Apple's iTunes.

ILike, a free downloadable software program, brings social networking to Apple’s iTunes.

This week, we tested a new software program that integrates with your iTunes in an attempt to add social networking to your listening routine. This program, named iLike, comes from a company of the same name. ILike is a free download that works with iTunes running on Macs and Windows PCs, and is available starting today at www.iLike.com.

We downloaded iLike on various computers and were pleased, overall, with how it worked. It studies your entire music library and your listening — not buying — habits before suggesting related songs. It shows you what your friends are currently listening to and sets up a Web site where your music tastes are organized for others to see, encouraging social networking according to your music compatibility with other users.

Many Web sites and services, including Rhapsody and Pandora, offer suggestions of related music, but iLike is focused on matching your tastes with those of other users, and showing what these friends are playing.

But iLike still has some kinks. We were frustrated when it suggested songs that we already owned, or when it didn’t offer any similar songs for our lesser-known tracks. And when we opened our AOL Instant Messenger with iLike and iTunes running, iLike sometimes shut down completely or skewed the entire iTunes viewing screen far to the left. Another problem occurred when we tried to play samples of music unsuccessfully, but iLike says this will be fixed by the time this column appears.

To get iLike, you must enter some information, including an email address and password. If you’d like, you can take a small quiz that involves selecting names of artists that you like; this list shows up in your personalized Web site.

The first time you open iTunes after downloading iLike, the new program appears in a vertical panel on the far right side of your iTunes screen, sleekly sliding underneath the player whenever you’d like to hide it. Four tabs can be opened in iLike: Related, Friends, Playlists and Profile.

The design and user interface of iLike are quite polished and Apple-like. The side panel looks like a part of iTunes, and the Web site is designed to work like a real software program.

When a song is played on iTunes, iLike gets to work, using its Related tab to display a list of nine songs (including each song’s title and artist) that are similar to the artist of the song that you’re playing. Five songs come from popular artists, and four are from unsigned artists.

Most songs have play icons to the left of their titles that, when selected, play a sample of the song or in the case of free MP3s, the entire track. An arrow icon beside each song title links you to a site where you can buy or download the song — using either the iTunes Store or iLike’s servers, in the case of the free MP3s.

The Related tab showed us many tunes we knew, and some we didn’t. While listening to Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” iLike suggested some old and new songs including Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” from 2004 and Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back In Anger” from 1995. We also downloaded free tunes from unsigned artists that were similar to the song that was playing.

But when downloaded, songs from unsigned artists were listed in our iTunes library as “Unknown Album” in the album category. And these free MP3s didn’t have album art.

If iTunes tracks are typed in with incorrect spellings or if the songs are fairly obscure, your Related tab may not show anything. Listeners with more eclectic tastes might rarely see songs in the Related tab, which could get frustrating. ILike plans to add a spell-checker to solve part of the problem.

ILike’s Profile tab contained Web links to My Home and My Profile, both personal Web sites created by iLike. On these sites, we uploaded photos of ourselves, listed our personal Web sites and named our favorite artists. On the My Home site, iLike recommended more songs according to the music in our iTunes library, and showed us a list of other iLike users with similar music tastes.

In each user’s My Profile page, lists of recently played songs, most-frequently played songs and most-frequently played artists are on display. Privacy settings that let everyone, just friends or no one see your profile and online status will be offered in the next week or so, but aren’t yet available.

Much like MySpace, acquiring friends on iLike is simple: send a message through the Web site requesting to be someone’s friend, and if they accept, they’re added to your list of friends. These friends show up in the Friends tab of your iLike program that runs beside iTunes.

The Friends tab in iLike lists your friends’ names alongside the song title and artist of the last track they played or are playing, if they’re online. Friends’ songs can be played or downloaded just like songs in the Related tab.

The Playlists tab was somewhat confusing. It lets you create an instant on-the-go playlist or a custom playlist that is created by choosing an artist. We used this tab least of all while using iLike. In the Mac version of iLike, this tab isn’t even offered, though it’s in the works.

If you’re tired of listening to iTunes all alone, and wonder what your friends are listening to, iLike is a useful and unobtrusive add-on for iTunes, an already great software program. Though it has a little more tweaking to do, we like iLike, and we think you’ll enjoy learning about new music and about your friends’ taste.


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