Following last night's first look at Apple's new iPods, I've spent some time playing with Apple's new social network for music, Ping, asking myself, "Has Apple laid down a threat to Facebook and MySpace with this?". The answer is that it has, but the threat is limited by key missing features, which I think need to be implemented or Ping will disappear from view with a pop.
You see, what limits Ping is its lack of personality -- at least, the version I'm using out here in the UK does.
Some of my criticisms may be geographic accidents, as the capacity to find other user through Facebook on Ping doesn't appear to be available on the Ping service here in the UK. That is a feature that's clearly itemised on Apple's own Ping introduction video which you can see here.
That is interesting, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs told Cnet last night that Apple had held talks with Facebook in order to get the Ping service together, but the social network had demanded terms he characterized as "onerous". That a Facebook Connect button appears in the original Apple video hints at last minute disagreements between the two firms. Here's a picture to prove it was there.
Anyway. Is Ping any good? Sure, it is nice and easy to find artists to follow. Yes, you can find your way to your friends as they slowly enable the service, you can post about purchases you make from within iTunes, and can recommend/like/follow any album, song or artist you find for sale within the service.
But that's all it does.
You can't do the Facebook thing and chuck those status messages out there, or as most lurker-types do, read through other people's as part of your daily dose of entertainment. Love or loathe status comments these really are part of Facebook's charm.
Ping has no easy way to post a comment. The only way in which I've been able to do this so far is to visit a page on the iTunes Store and use the post button there, but there's no clearly visible Post button on my user profile page. (If there is I've missed it, which is feedback in itself). You can also re-Post other people's comments with your own comments added.
As it stands, Ping isn't so much as social network for music so much as being a marketing for music tool: Artists (or more likely their PR people) can send out comments, such as gig advice or gentle musings, but users can't easily post thoughts of joy or angry messages to delete and apologise for later on. That interaction is at the root of any social network. Social means interaction, right?
This lack of personality is a huge missing feature as it makes Ping much less interesting than it should be, essentially just a place to stick 'Like' labels on things you find in the shop. You can't even hit a post button to recommend music you have in your own Library.
And that's the other problem with this "social network for music" -- it is completely integrated within iTunes. Which sounds great, but it isn't -- a Beatles fan can't like a Beatles album, because it isn't for sale on iTunes. A real music buff can't get enthusiastic about an obscure out of print artist such as the legendary Back To The Planet or Terminal Cheesecake. If it isn't for sale on iTunes, it doesn't exist. Music isn't like that. Collectors and forgotten tracks are at the root of its DNA.
For me, that's a disservice to music and music lovers. Fixing this would be so simple -- all Apple needs to do is add a Post feature to each user's home page through which they can add their own musings, or write about an artist that you can't find on iTunes which they love.
This would also need to let users post images (perhaps hosted on Flickr or Me.com) for inclusion alongside comments. They'd also need to be able to include URLs.
That lack of focus on the world beyond iTunes could be Apple's Achilles Heel as it makes its best move yet into social networking.
Without inclusion of content from the wider community, Ping will lack that visceral, addictive engagement 'stickiness' that characterizes other succesful networks.
It is possible this isn't Apple's intention, that all it sees Ping as is a way to boost music sales, an on-site product recommendation system, but with 160 million iTunes users that seems such a wasted opportunity.
The potential to create a Facebook alternative based on music is huge with Ping.
The potential to miss that potential is also huge.
Summing up: Will I use Ping? Yes, a little, I'm a music obsessive and will want to share my excellent taste. Will others people use Ping? Yes, a little, if only to learn about excellent music from people with excellent taste. Does Ping offer a satisfactory long-term experience? Not quite yet. It needs more user interaction and the ability for users to add out of iTunes content. In its current iteration it will quickly get boring, but the potential is huge.
Can Apple get away with an annual update on a service like this? Absolutely not. Apple will need to keep adding features here, and will need to find as elegant a way as it can in which to accomplish this.
Ping's fate rests on user-focused feature additions and user-created content. Without those it will fall flat and become a ghost within the iTunes shell. And that would be a shame.