They must be making popsicles in hell now, because Microsoft has come up with a much better way to expand your musical horizons than Apple iTunes 8's Genius in their new Zune software: MixView. Not only is MixView much prettier and more fun than Genius—we already knew that—it's also more useful, more informative, and it leverages the infamous social aspect of Zune in a beautiful way. In fact, it makes Genius look like a flat, grey, boring Windows application.
MixView shows music you may find interesting based on a playing song in a graphical way. It also shows the relations graphically. Take this shot of Billy Joel's Piano Man:
At a simple glance, you can see albums that are related to this song. The interface invites you to explore, seeing artists influenced by this artist, artists who influenced this artist, and similar albums by the same artist. You learn this quickly because when your cursor flies over, a translucent bubble tells you more about it: "Richard Marx influenced by Billy Joel" or "Frankie Valli influenced Billy Joel." On the top you can see Billy Joel's The Strangers, while on the bottom you can see James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, which is a related album.
In the black boxes you can see the names of the top listeners of the song. If you put your mouse on top, a small list of the Zune user's favourites appears, allowing you to go and explore his or her library in depth. All of this happening fast, giving instantaneous responses to all your actions.
Now, compare this simple but beautiful and powerful user interface with this:
I rest my case. While the list is simple, even with the Coverflow effect on to make it visually more palatable it's definitely not as engaging as Microsoft's solution. In fact, it is more confusing and overwhelming. If the purpose of Genius is to invite you to expand your musical horizons—like Apple says—this is definitely not the right way to entice listeners to do so. In addition to that, not only Genius looks like an accounting application—and completely out of sync with what you can find on your own iPod touch—but Genius recommends songs that you already have just because they are in a "Best of" album.
While Zune's MixView doesn't have any really new features—other web services offer similar things—what's new is how perfectly they have implemented the whole thing, how good, elegant, and simple it looks. Quite simply: MixView is what Apple should have done from the very beginning with Genius. And I don't even have a Zune. Would this make me switch to Zune? I like my iPhone and the rest of iTunes too much to switch because of a single feature. But if Apple doesn't wake up and smell the coffee, they may find themselves as a runner-up in the user interface front. [Thanks OMG! Ponies!]