The Internet is all abuzz with the news that Apple is going social. The introduction of Ping as an integral feature of iTunes 10 has been touted by Steve Jobs as Apple’s answer to Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. But is it really?

Let’s take a quick look at three aspects of the new service:

  • Competition with MySpace and other social networks.
  • Is it truly social media?
  • The particulars of the interface.

According to Apple’s website, Ping allows you to follow your friends (the ones who use iTunes anyway) and their musical choices. It also allows you to follow artists and bands — an area in which MySpace has so far been in the lead. As a matter of fact, music has been MySpace’s mainstay for sometime now, especially as the other aspects of the platform have suffered such intense criticism for the last several years.

Ben Parr, co-editor of Mashable, weighs in:

As I wrote last week, I believe that Ping spells trouble for MySpace. MySpace Music has been one of the social network’s few bright spots; millions of users come to interact with their favorite artists, while countless artists come to MySpace because it has users that love music. However, Ping presents a direct alternative for both users and artists, and its integration with iTunes means that 160 million people have quick access to it on their desktops.

(Parr’s post also includes a poll on the Ping vs. MySpace debate should you wish to participate.)

From what I have seen of Ping so far, I believe it will take awhile before it really puts any fear into MySpace. For one thing, Ping has a distinct major-label bias as far as its offerings are concerned. MySpace, on the other hand, is a haven for small and unsigned bands as well as the major players. Fans of local music will almost certainly find MySpace to be superior until this evens out.

Another reason is that Ping does not have the flexibility of true social media because it is not really social media. Ruth Mortimer, the Associate Features Editor at Marketing Week, and I agree on this:

That all sounds lovely, but to me, Ping is fake social media. The service is superficially social, but not truly so. It is housed within Apple’s iTunes platform, which means it isn’t really open for people to communicate with each other as they choose. It is controlled within another programme. You can’t simply log onto the internet and access Ping; you have to invest in Apple’s software or hardware to get involved.

Compare Ping to Facebook. Anyone with an internet connection can log on to Facebook and see thousands of other programmes integrated with it. You want your Twitter status to come up in your Facebook news feed? No problem. Meanwhile, Ping doesn’t integrate itself well with other programmes. It’s removed from the rest of the social set.

This is hardly surprising. Mac has a tradition of maintaining very tight control of its offerings (note the onerous approval process for its iPhone apps). It is only logical to expect it to want to house this new network completely within the confines of its hardware and software. It is this attitude that has not only allowed it to produce some of the most well-designed products on the market, but has also brought the company under fire repeatedly in the same way that Microsoft had been during the “Browser Wars.”

In addition, the ability to cross-pollinate data from one social platform has become something that is expected. There are constantly new ways to link up your Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr and other accounts. In addition, there are platforms and services developed strictly to collate and manage multiple social media accounts. Friend Feed comes to mind as an easily accessible example.

There are other issues, such as the fact that the recommendation system is a complete mess. Everyone I’ve compared notes with about this reports the same problem: recommendations that are in no way pertinent to their tastes. This one is hardly excusable, in my opinion. With the info contained in iTunes, Apple could easily produce on-target advice for music discovery, especially is the user already has Genius running.

Mario Anima, Director of Online Community/Product Manager at Current, has a great breakdown of the interface with all its pros and cons on his personal blog, cine + octo = boo. Here is an excerpt illustrating a basic fumble on the part of the Mac crew, a poor invitation system:

That said, new adopters need an easy way to shout out that they have joined and are using a new product. The simplest way to do this is a sound invite system, either social or email based. The bottom line, it needs to be easy and it needs to leverage existing resources.

Apple attempted to tap this with Facebook Connect, but we’ve since learned what happened there. What we’re left with is a rather defunct email invite system, which requires the manual copying and pasting of multiple email addresses to facilitate the invite process.

Call me lazy, but why would I ever waste time doing this? I sync addresses to my Apple Address Book, and I also have other email platforms chock full of contact lists. Why not take the few simple steps necessary to wire up your invite process to some of these?

Note: If you are going to attempt to compel people to connect with others, you need to make it easy to do that, whether they are artists or friends.

Again, this is basic. How many times have you seen opportunities to “import your contacts from Gmail” on various social platforms? What about getting them from Facebook? This is not only something that is now considered to basically be a standard, but it is also just plain good marketing.

I actively use both Apple and PC products on a daily basis. I have an iPhone and I use an Apple Airport for my wireless networking. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that while Mac produces some of the most elegant and functional machines and software on the market, when it misses something it is usually something basic. For instance, look at how long we had to wait for a simple cut-and-paste functionality on the iPhone.

Let us hope that future updates to Ping integrate some of Mario Anima’s suggestions. With those refinements, I am confident that it could become a wonderful asset.

Source: “Web Faceoff: Ping vs. MySpace,” Mashable, 09/08/10
Source: “Apple’s stab at social media is little more than a sales tool,” Marketing Week, 09/09/10
Source: “Apple’s Ping: A Broken Social Scene?,” cine + octo = boo, 09/03/10
Image by Y, used under its Creative Commons license.

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