Fresh ‘discoveries' from iPod and Zune

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

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Zune announced that new players in different capacities and colors would be available, 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 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.

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.

Overall, 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.