Friday, September 17, 2010

The Story About Ping:
A Look at iTunes' Foray into Social Networking

I tend to react to new iTunes updates with a mix of annoyance and dread. Every so often, these updates will come with some sort of element that actually does make my life easier, but more often than not they're riddled with useless extras. Let's face it - Genius playlists are horrible, and nobody has ever used Cover Flow in their life.  

Nonetheless, Apple moves forward, confident in the falsehood that consumers want iTunes to be their go-to center for all forms of media, rather than a convenient way to organize their digital music. In the past several updates, iTunes has given me locations for my movies, television shows and books. I currently have all three of these categories completely empty.

Now, with the latest release of iTunes 10, Apple has dipped its toes into the dark and murky waters of social networking. Their new feature, cutely titled "Ping," is supposed to connect iTunes users with each other worldwide, allowing us to judge our friends' horrible tastes in music and be connected to artists . How does such a daring foray into the unknown hold up? Find out after the jump.

The problem with any burgeoning social network is the push to reach that tipping point - the moment when enough other people are members of the same network so that it justifies one's own time and efforts to join. Luckily for Apple, they can already avoid that problem right off the bat - Wired reports that there are already 150 million active iTunes store users for whom a Ping account is a mere mouse click away. Compare this to, perhaps the most famous social music network in America, that numbers a mere 40 million users worldwide.

So, momentum-wise, Apple is already ahead of the game. Theoretically, Ping should be what other nascent social networks only dream of becoming - a network that already reaches out to millions of people, and thus is worth joining. Additionally, Ping has a significant advantage over in terms of musical integration. On, I have to "scrobble," or upload, all the listening I do in order for the website to show this information. With the integration of Ping and iTunes, this annoying step is also removed, allowing for instant transmission of my listening to the social network.

So, Ping has a significant user base, and a very simple way to mine information for one's musical profile. People use iTunes, and people like to look at their friends' musical tastes. Is there any way that this could fail?

Well, yes, there's quite a number of ways that this could fail. I've only spent a few days on Ping, but already it seems that the service is significantly lacking in some areas, and committing huge blunders in others. 

A sample of my activity on Ping
For starters, what can you do with Ping? From your profile, you can "like" specific singles or albums you select in the iTunes store. You can review albums as well.  After setting up a profile, you can start "following" other people with profiles. Ping then gives you information on these people, chronicling the music they like.  I am currently following three different profiles - Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and my girlfriend. 

Do you see the problem here? Ping, for some reason, mixes one's real friends with the artists that one chooses to follow. There is no way to differentiate between the two. As such, my Ping feed is a strange mix between the tastes of people that I actually know, and advertisements and concert promotions from artists who I have never seen in my life. Both are valuable services, but Ping needs to learn to separate the two, perhaps by having a separate list for "Friends I Follow" and "Artists I Follow."

For example, I may like Joe Biden on Facebook, but I'm not friends with him. Ping fails to recognize the difference. Ping gives artists a good chance to convey information to their fans and even release new singles, but it's strange to mix this more commercial aspect with the social part. 

This is a minor offense, however. Ping's more egregious sin comes from it's own self-imposed blinders. Theoretically, the ability to share all the music I listen to with my friends is a good thing. However, Ping limits the music your friends can see to the music that you have purchased in the iTunes store. 

This is most ridiculous and limiting aspect of the service. For example, I currently have 8,975 songs in my iTunes library, but only four of these were actually purchased on iTunes. I cannot leave reviews for any of the tracks not purchased through the iTunes store. My friends cannot see any of the music I listen to that wasn't purchased through the iTunes store. If I buy a real, honest-to-god physical CD tomorrow and upload it to my iTunes library, you will not see this on Ping, because I did not buy these tracks through the iTunes store. 

An example of a listening chart. 
This sort of experience is not available on Ping.
This limitation pretty much kills one of the major things Ping had going for it - the integration of one's music-listening application with the actual network. I listen to tons of music on iTunes every day, but since the bulk of it is not from the iTunes store, none of this information is available for my friends to look at. Whereas, on, one can peruse endless listening statistics (What song have I listened to the most in the last 7 days? What artist have I listened to the most in my lifetime?), Ping contains none of these options, and thus none of the fun of what a social music network could possibly be. 

Instead, Ping functions as an unwieldy RSS feed that does nothing but act like a giant advertisement for the iTunes store. It tells me when my friends have purchased music from the iTunes store, or when artists I like have put new singles for sale in the iTunes store. But it tells me nothing about my friends' actual listening habits, and nothing about these artists' actual non-digital output. As such, Ping is a chronicle of one's purchasing history, not one's listening history. 

This is a shame because, as stated earlier, Ping has the potential to become a major power. It has the ubiquitous user base and the musical library integration all ready to go. But, whether out of outright greed or mere shortsightedness, the Powers That Be at Apple have squandered these advantages to produce a mere advertisement for the iTunes store. Unless Ping realizes that there are other options for procuring music outside of iTunes, and manages to incorporate this into its interface, I have major doubts that it will become a Major Player in the social networking scene any time soon.