Ping May Suck But Only Suckas Will Count It Out and Five Reasons Ping Will Thrive
Apple recently launched Ping, its new music-focused social network. Ping runs within iTunes (10 and later) on Windows and Macs and can also be accessed on iPod Touches and iPhones running Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 4.1. While it is being referred to as a “social network,” Ping is explicitly about selling music through the iTunes store. Over the past decade, Apple has more or less successfully resolved a series of obstacles impeding online music – from portability (which it successfully addressed with the iPod) to a legitimate source for online music (iTunes) and finally ridding the ecosystem of the ridiculous DRM systems forced on it by the major record companies.
But success created a new problem, namely how to find new bands when traditional sources – radio, MTV, and magazines — have lost much of their reach and relevance. Nature abhors a vacuum and MySpace, Google, Facebook, Pandora and Twitter have all jumped on music to varying degrees but none more than Apple has more to gain nor lose by owning the discovery piece of music’s value chain. In lieu of starting a social network, Apple has made iTunes much more social and branding the new features as “Ping.”
Apple’s move makes a great deal of sense. Music has always been a common, collective experience. Concerts are far more fun with friends as is music in a filled car. I learned about almost all of my favorite bands from friends and I practically fall over myself wanting to turn others on to new music when I find something new. In this regard, Ping is such a natural extension to an online music store that it’s hard to understand why Apple waited so long. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter were already showing that people prefer to get their music recommendations from friends instead of comments and reviews from total strangers (as is the case with Amazon reviews). Apple also realized that if they didn’t do it now then some plucky start-up like GetGlue just might.
Despite its promise as a way to discover new artists and engage with those that you already like, this version of Ping has serious short-comings and the response from the blogosphere has been somewhat harsh with “…the general sentiment around Ping is that it kinda sucks.”, Business insider continues:
What the biggest problem with Ping? It is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t interact with your iTunes music collection. It only plays nice with the limited selection of music obtained through Apple’s store. For instance, if we play Kanye West’s “Power” in our iTunes collection, none of our Ping friends know it. All they know is that we “liked” Power. But they only know that because we searched iTunes for “Power,” then “liked” it. A cumbersome process we only went through because Ping is new and novel.
Notable Ping Flaws:
a) Ping’s recommendations don’t work. The “Artists We Recommend You Follow” doesn’t appear to adhere to the preferences entered. (See above for what Ping thinks I should look into. Was my recent purchase of Broken Bells really an indicator that I’d like Beyonce?) Ping’s recommendations will almost certainly improve as they add more artists and tweak their preference algorithms but for now it’s just embarrassing.
b) Ping doesn’t have many bands, an omission that becomes very obvious as you try to find and follow your favorite artists. (A Mashable commenter Bruce Hoffman followed up with TuneCore and received this:
Thanks for writing! Not only will Ping have ‘People’ accounts, but it will also have ‘Artist’ accounts that allow musicians to upload and create their own pages featuring their pictures, videos, tour-dates, music recommendations and a lot more. We were fortunate enough to speak with Apple today to begin working on getting the first TuneCore Artists Ping accounts set up. We will be able to get more and more TuneCore Artists set up over the next weeks as Apple works to authenticate and set up Ping Artist accounts for the millions of artists within iTunes.”
(Note: As I was writing this I saw that some of my favorite artists including Broken Bells who were not available to follow earlier in the week have now been added.)
c. Ping ignores most of my music library. That is Ping only knows about the songs I’ve brought from the Apple store and not the hundreds of CDs in my library that I ripped or even the songs I bought from MusicMatch and Amazon.
It is not as though technology doesn’t exist to include one’s entire music library. Last.fm goes through music libraries and doesn’t import it, but it notes down what I listen to and how often.
d. My friends aren’t on Ping and I’m not going to take the time to add them once again having done so on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and (back in the day) MySpace.
With these and other lesser issues, you might be thinking that Ping is Apple’s new Lisa with an expected lifespan of Google Wave. But for a variety of reasons, including the five below, I believe Ping is destined to be a significant part of the online music landscape.
So with few bands, few friends, and only a small portion of people’s libraries (that is the purchased music as opposed to ripped songs), one wouldn’t think that Ping has a chance. Here is why I disagree:
5 reasons Not to Discount Ping
1. 160 million iTunes users
160 million of anything is huge. The fact that this is the number of people that Apple reports have installed iTunes software for controlling their music (and possibly other forms of media) libraries alone is enough to not discount Ping regardless of its current limitations. Let’s not forget what Microsoft was able to do with Internet Explore by leveraging the installed base of Windows users.
2. Ping will get better, much better
Apple has a history of improving products over and over until they we take for granted what an amazing little product is in our hands (note: let’s hope this one day applies to AppleTV).
They take something small, simple, and painstakingly well considered. They ruthlessly cut features to derive the absolute minimum core product they can start with. … It’s a slow and steady process of continuous iterative improvement—so slow, in fact, that the process is easy to overlook if you’re observing it in real time. Only in hindsight is it obvious just how remarkable Apple’s platform development process is.
… consider the iPod. It debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only, FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and 5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in 2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.
Remember when all iTunes songs had those horrible DRM limitations or when the iPhone had no third-party apps and lacked such basics as ‘cut & paste’ and multitasking? Sometimes Apple holds back features so as to not overwhelm and sometimes they just don’t get it right on the first few passes. But if history is any indication Ping will evolve and don’t be surprised if the major flaws with Ping are addressed in subsequent updates going out to the 160 million (see point #1 above) registered iTunes users.
Most importantly is that Ping becomes great with just a few tweaks. First, little things to bring it to parity with social network norms including notifying you when other people comment on or like something you’ve posted or commented on. Next, integration with Facebook via Facebook Connect, Twitter feeds, and the ability to comment/post updates, etc. on anything in your library not just new purchases. Facebook might be pissed at Apple right now for building a social network but in the end they both hate Google more than they hate each other and in the world of technology that is enough to drive deals. (And while this is far from a little “tweak”, imagine a world where Ping users can stream their iTunes content from their home computers to their iPhones, iPads, office computers, etc., etc.).
3. Apple can’t afford to let Ping fail
In the past few years music has become the critical battleground for digital media dominance. Control music and you control mobile digital media and possibly the living room.
Microsoft saw this a few years ago but failed with Zune. Amazon saw the same thing but stalled with its muddled music efforts. Neither of those have gone away but the real competition will be with Google, which is even stronger than Apple in handset sales and user base. Google also has the benefit of the record labels falling over themselves to help establish a viable competitor to Apple’s dominance.
Google Inc., which is developing a digital music service, is finding a warm welcome at record companies that are hoping the technology company can loosen Apple Inc.’s grip on the digital music market with its iTunes music store.
And neither Apple nor Google wants to wait around for Facebook to do something serious with music. Facebook has 3x the number of users as iTunes and its users already post updates what music they are listening to and what concerts they are going to.
Facebook is already the largest photo-sharing site on the web, it wouldn’t be a big leap for them to figure out a way to add music sharing via a streaming licensing deal. (Think this is crazy? In the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg dedicated 50% of the company’s engineers to developing a program so that Facebook friends could share music. While this was ultimately shelved it gives insight that Zuckerberg thinks there is more to sharing than just status updates and photographs).
4. The Promise of a Media Focused Social Network makes so much sense that someone will when and it won’t be Zune, MySpace, Yahoo, Real or any other pretenders to the throne
After the obvious flaws in Ping are addressed Apple could make Ping an indispensable aspect of people’s daily lives by any of the following: a) Make the long-awaited Streaming iTunes part of Ping (your friends can hear what you are playing when you are playing it – your own radio station); b) Open it up to other apps (in addition to users commenting about commercial songs they could share and comment on songs made in things like Smule’s popular Glee app). C) Open Ping up to movies, TV shows, Podcasts, and even apps. There are 250,000 apps in the app store (and growing), Ping could go a long way to helping developers keep their apps from getting lost.
5. It’s already a very good mobile app
Arguably Ping is as a better mobile experience than it is on the desktop (and maybe in the end that is all that matters).
It’s interesting how much more polished the Ping UI is on iPhone than on the desktop—a testimony to where Apple thinks the money is. Whether you’re standing in line, sitting in an airport, or on the bus, Ping will help you find music with more confidence, and in less time, than ever. The desktop UI, by contrast, looks horribly rushed, and not nearly up to Apple’s usual standards for a demo, let alone a shipped product.
I have several good friends at MySpace and am wondering what this means for them. In the near-term not much. Despite its well-documented woes and dropping traffic, MySpace Music is superior to Ping in every metric other than aesthetics. MySpace has full album streaming from pretty much every band on a major and strong presence by the indies and even unsigned bands.
Over the long run, I believe this means two possible things. First, artists can ill-afford to ignore Ping and they will all begin putting attention into their Ping profiles and updates. You won’t have to be on MySpace (or Twitter for that matter just to follow your favorite acts). And while I see MySpace flipping their nose at the upstart the same way that they did at Facebook, we all know how that turned out. However on the flipside, Apple has made it clear that music is a strategic weapon whose value goes much greater than the sales generated or page views created. If you own music, you may end up owing tablets, smart phones, and maybe even the living room.
MySpace may have become a turd as a social network (sorry guys), but so was Palm in the smartphone industry and that didn’t stop HP from seeing the multi-hundred million dollar value it could be in their hands. This could be the exit that Fox needs (and by now must want) from MySpace. Instead of a Bebo multiple (rumored to be 1/85th of AOL’s original purchase price), it’s possible to see Fox selling off MySpace (or even MySpace Music) to someone who wants or needs music to counter Apple… Google, Microsoft, or even HP (okay that’s a stretch but the point is that owning online music is now a very big deal).
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