While others have rushed to write off or hype up Ping, the music-focused social network introduced by Apple two days ago, we’re not going to do either of those things today—it’s just too early. Surely Twitter saw more than its fair share of obituaries before establishing itself as a service to be reckoned with, and few could have dreamed that Facebook would achieve global ubiquity after launching as a profile site for Harvard students in 2004. Yet Ping isn’t Twitter, and it isn’t Facebook: despite Apple efforts to collaborate with these services, it looks and feels like a trojan horse to eventually challenge these and other social networks, leveraging the strength of its iTunes customer base to get a leg up on competitors who have struggled for their first million or ten million users.
Today’s implementation of Ping takes two forms: on Macs and PCs running iTunes 10, it is a modest component of the iTunes Store found either on the left side bar of the application under iTunes Store, or on the top bar within the Store next to iTunes U. Here, Ping looks a lot like a limited form of Facebook, letting you set up a brief profile with a single picture, some descriptive text, and up to 10 songs you like. Then, you can monitor “recent activity” taking place with your contacts—people you follow, or who follow you—as well as seeing options for adding more contacts, and monitoring song and album charts showing the top music purchases made by people you follow. Additional pages let you edit your profile, monitor reviews you’ve posted on iTunes, and see lists of contacts, followers, and people Apple recommends that users follow.
Apple has structured Ping with reasonable privacy settings, though there’s a lot less here to protect than on services such as Facebook. You can be completely public, share your comments and content only with friends, or be completely private—you can also opt to never sign up for Ping at all. If you share only with friends, you need to manually approve your followers one by one, with email advisories every time you get a new request. Bear in mind that you may be exposing iTunes purchases and other details to a broad audience by being completely public, so you may need to edit down your profile to share only details you’re comfortable letting other people know about.
The grayer, simpler iOS version of Ping is available within the iTunes application, but only on iOS 4.x devices—sorry, iPadders. It features the same general features, minus the editing capabilities and with less emphasis on Apple recommendations. Neither version makes it as easy to find new contacts as it could; a planned Facebook Connect feature was yanked shortly after Ping launched due to contract issues between Apple and Facebook.
But Apple’s recommendations of contacts you should follow are apparently powerful. Minutes after launching Ping, Lady GaGa had around 400 followers—likely Apple beta testers. Two days later, she has over 156,000 more followers. Most users are in the tens or hundreds, with few in the thousands. As Chris Martin suggested during the Apple event, this is proof positive that Apple’s marketing is capable of popularizing anything, and a suggestion of just how much sway it will have for artists as Ping’s user base continues to grow.
Will it continue to grow? We’re going to bet that the answer is “yes,” though the value of the service right now is truly very modest by comparison with Facebook and even Twitter. Ping just isn’t as useful. In addition to letting you track artists and concerts, it’s there largely to let you see what your contacts are buying and recommending—again, only music, and then only music that Apple sells in your specific country.
A week-old Jamiroquai track available in France’s iTunes Store but not in the United States one can’t be purchased, liked, or shared with contacts if you’re writing about it using a U.S. iTunes account. If a friend in a different country posts comments on tracks that aren’t sold in your country, you won’t even see them. For now, this is a social network where you can only talk and be heard about specific subjects. Additionally, the idea of commenting just for the sake of commenting—sharing your current status or thoughts as you would on Facebook or Twitter—isn’t there. Comments are only there for you and your contacts to annotate existing posts, purchases, or the addition of new contacts. They may well be buried and never even seen if you have a lot of contacts.
As it turns out, Apple has created two classes of user accounts: Artists and People. Somewhat ironically, Artists get to comment on Ping without specifically selling you anything, and can post photos, videos, and possibly other content at will. People, including you, are there to comment on and purchase content from the Artists, not to share pictures, videos, or even thoughts if they’re unrelated to music content in the Store. These limitations create a very odd and conceptually unsettling system, at least if you take Apple’s claim that this is a “social network” seriously.
Our suspicion is that Apple will change this structure dramatically over time—unless it really wants Ping to be nothing more than a “find it in iTunes, tell your friends” selling tool for music. Changes are so easy for the company to make that they can appear at any time without even requiring a new version of iTunes or the iOS iTunes application. But perhaps that’s all Apple aspires to do: empower iTunes users just enough to sell more stuff from the Store, adding movies, TV shows, and apps over the weeks and months that follow. Should that be the service’s only draw, we’d be surprised if people are still actively using it a year from now, or perhaps even a month from now. It has a lot of potential, but Apple will need to make some major improvements before Ping merits more than occasional check-ins. Absent a more engaging social environment, users won’t want to serve as unpaid iTunes Store pitch people for very long.