Apple’s Music Streaming Secret Weapon: Genius

I was out taking a walk this afternoon. I had my iPhone, and my headphones, and I was listening to music. When I do this, I listen to music in different ways, depending on my mood. Sometimes I pick an album and listen to it in order. Sometimes I shuffle all my songs. And sometimes, like today, I shuffle songs until I find one I like, then I create a Genius playlist from it and listen to that.

Apple’s Genius examines the music in your iTunes library and compares it with the libraries of others to create playlists of “songs that sound great together.” Essentially, Genius looks to see what you have in common with other music listeners, and crunches numbers to find the songs that will work in a playlist based on what different people have in common.

This is very different from iTunes Radio, or any algorithmically-based streaming radio, which tries to find songs that go together, sort of. It’s based on a lowest common denominator approach, trying to find bands that are similar to other bands, albums that work with a certain genre, and package them in a radio-like stream. But if you’ve listened to iTunes Radio, to stations other than those that play hits, you’ve probably been disappointed. You either hear the same songs over and over, or you hear lots of songs that you don’t like. Since you can only skip six songs per hour, per station, you’re likely to not find iTunes Radio very interesting.

If Apple makes its iTunes streaming service as I think they will, you’ll have access to every song in the iTunes Store – which is the way other streaming services work – but you’ll also have access to your own music library. The two will be commingled, and you’ll be able to create playlists using music you own together with music you stream. If so, iTunes will be able to leverage the Genius database – information about the music you already have in your library – to create much more efficient playlists and radio stations than what’s available now.

Apple’s Genius technology works quite well. I often use Genius Shuffle at home when I don’t know what to listen to, and I use Genius playlists when I’m out walking, as I described above. Naturally, I only hear music that I own, but the combinations are appropriate. If Apple can leverage this technology in it music streaming service, they may have the most personal of all streaming services, giving them a big edge in the market.