Katherine Boehret

Fresh ‘Discoveries’ from iPod, Zune

Amid a speech by its CEO and a musical performance, Apple last week unveiled a new version of its iTunes software and some new iPods.

Meanwhile, Microsoft‘s Zune announced via press release that new players in different capacities and colors would be available this week, along with a software update.

Despite their different approaches, these two announcements shared a notable common thread: integrated music discovery. Each company’s new software features ways for users to find automatically generated suggestions of music they might like, the way Pandora Media Inc.’s popular personalized music lists do. Of course, music discovery also encourages users to buy more.

Apple’s new iPods include a thinner Nano with an accelerometer, which senses the direction a screen is being held in a user’s hands and flips the display horizontally or vertically. These Nanos come in eight- or 16-gigabyte versions for $149 or $199 and are available in nine bright colors. A new, thinner iPod Touch with a built-in speaker was also unveiled, and it comes in eight-, 16- or 32-gigabyte versions for $229, $299 or $399.

Microsoft’s two new Zune players come in 16- and 120-gigabyte capacities for $200 and $250, respectively. All Zunes have built-in FM tuners and wireless capability, but the new upgrade allows users to buy and download songs they hear on their Zunes’ radios via Wi-Fi, when available.

While Apple’s iPod has been a snowballing success for the company, its companion iTunes software is no slouch. To date, 65 million iTunes store accounts with associated credit cards have been set up on Macs and Windows PCs. But iTunes has always been weak on music discovery and community.

Apple (AAPL) calls iTunes 8’s ability to make smart music recommendations the “Genius” feature. The tool can automatically do two things after analyzing a selected song from your music library. First, it can generate a playlist of songs from tunes you own. Second, it can generate a list of songs you don’t own but might want to buy from the iTunes store.

MicrosoftZune’s Mixview feature displays content related to an artist with an explanation of the relationship.

Microsoft’s Zune software discovers and recommends music using categories called “Picks,” “Channels” and “Mixview.” The last of the three, Mixview, generates recommendations for other musicians and albums, as well as other Zune users with whom you might like to connect. The suggestions are based on the artist of the song you’re playing and are displayed in an interactive graphic that explains how each is linked — for instance, if your artist was influenced by a band or if a member of Zune’s social network is a top listener of the artist you’re playing.

After using the music-discovery software from Apple and Microsoft (MSFT), I felt like Apple’s Genius tool still had a lot to learn, though the company says it will improve over time as more people start using it. Zune’s software had some similar issues, but it offered recommendations in a richer, more engaging manner, encouraging me to keep digging around and learn more about my music. Though I didn’t happen to have as much time to use Zune’s software as I did Apple’s Genius, I got more out of my Zune experience.

Apple offers much more content at its iTunes store than Zune. In all categories, iTunes takes the lead: in songs, 8.5 million songs to Zune’s 4 million; in music videos, 10,000 versus 8,500; in television episodes, 30,000 versus 3,000; and in audio and video podcasts, 125,000 versus 6,000.

To analyze and learn from your music, Apple scans the contents of your music library, which may raise privacy concerns for some people. Apple says that the information it collects is completely anonymous, and that it does not and will not associate this information on its servers with you or your account.

Some of my Genius playlists were well-crafted, including songs that meshed well with one another. But outliers cropped up, such as when “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash was stuck in the middle of a list generated from Coldplay’s gentler ballad, “Green Eyes.” Some songs won’t generate playlists if you don’t have enough related songs in your library; this happened to me with the pop hit “Apologize” by Timbaland, featuring OneRepublic.

Songs from artists whose content isn’t sold in iTunes, such as The Beatles, won’t generate Genius lists, because Genius makes suggestions based only on what it sells in its iTunes catalog. Genius will soon work with songs beyond those sold in iTunes.

Genius has a bigger problem. If you hit “Play” in iTunes, a Genius sidebar appears to offer content related to a selected song. But as play continues, Genius doesn’t continuously generate new recommendations; instead, it’s stuck on the very first song that was selected — which you might have chosen two hours ago. This means music discovery must be a manual process, rather than an as-you-listen convenience.

Genius playlists can be made on a computer or iPod and sync back and forth. I synced Genius lists on two iPod touches, but this didn’t work in one test with an iPhone. Apple said it couldn’t replicate this problem and hadn’t had other reports of it.

Zune software never scans your music collection. Instead, it knows only the number of times you played a song and how you may have rated a song.

Zune’s Mixview adds a real zing to the discovery process. It is a kaleidoscope-like graphic that appears on the screen when a song, artist, album or friend’s Zune Card is selected. The selected item is surrounded by eight to 10 floating squares filled with graphics and text, each holding a related song, album, artist or graphic representation of a Zune listener who’s considered an “expert” on the selection.

Each of these related squares includes a line of text explaining its relationship to the center item. For example, as I played “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, Cyril Davies appeared as a related artist; an image of Arthur Alexander appeared as an influencer of the Stones; a Zune community member with the tag “Rreynoso” appeared as the top listener for the band and other Stones albums were displayed.

Mixview changes as you explore it. When one of its recommendations is selected, a new Mixview is created around that selection, encouraging discovery. But Mixview has the same problem as Apple’s Genius: When one song ends and another begins, the Mixview graphic doesn’t automatically change; you must manually start Mixview for a new song. Zune says it doesn’t want to change the graphic in case a user is in mid-exploration.

Unlike Genius, Mixview shows songs and artists beyond what Zune sells online. But the company says Mixview does “favor” Zune content, and Zune Picks are limited to items sold by Zune.

Zune Picks and Channels are more passive ways of discovering music: Picks are generated for you in Zune Marketplace according to your listening habits. Zune Channels bring collections of music to Zune devices and software, but these are useful only for Zune Pass members who pay $15 monthly.

Apple’s Genius is a helpful tool when it comes to quickly making a playlist, and its iTunes sidebar might reveal fresh related content. But the Zune software truly allows people to discover more about their own music and that of others.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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