Apple, Google, iTunes, MySpace and Honeycomb

Google and Apple continue their war, with the search giant overnight announcing plans to drop support for H.264 from Chrome, even while it continues to develop its very own tablet software to compete with the iPad. Does its code-name -- 'Honeycomb' -- suggest Google plans to turn to distributed computing in an attempt to unseat Apple's iTunes empire? And how can Apple fight back?

The battle for iTunes

At present the iTunes model is specific, a purchase, download and own model, with all content sourced from central servers. Google seeks its own path to media dominance. What if that path goes back just ten years to the distributed files of file-sharing? What if Honeycomb's media initiative harkens back to Napster with cellular content sharing?

Google took time to demonstrate Honeycomb features at CES last week (video above), but didn't offer much about its media consumption features. We do know Honeycomb was built from the ground up for media consumption, and that the company is promising "surprises" when it ships.

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Google cannot be blind to the advantage that iTunes gives Apple, so it stands to reason it will want to field more robust features to compete with Apple’s advantages in media consumption.

So what could these be? And what could Apple do to undermine Google's attempt, while it preps the ground for iPad 2.0

Legitimate file-sharing?

Think about a situation in which the rental model you get from Honeycomb emulates the immediate gratification of the original Napster age -- all the content everywhere inside the GOOG-box -- combined with the social recommendation and expert guidance you might hope for from a cabbalistic combination of Facebook and MySpace? All your friends are there, guiding you through what they love. And if you don't have any friends, there's always some way to navigate your way through music, film, television.

In this model, a rental model of some hybrid mashed-up celestial jukebox in which your device is a cell on some  vast file-sharing festival, for a cost of a notional $19.99, then what chance does iTunes and its a la carte model have to fight back?

Can you seriously see Ping as in possession of the testicular fortitude to fight back? I don't think so. I feel Ping is an intimation of something else. Neither Google nor Apple have ever quite got social quite right -- from Google Wave to, neither firm has ever achieved a Facebook, or, indeed, a MySpace moment.

Is this the MySpace moment?

Poor old MySpace.

If ever there was a problem looking for a solution, it must be the once-loved now ignored MySpace. It lacks the visceral appeal of Facebook, partly because its user interface is so clunky and unpleasant. (Too Much Flash). When you do reach a page it is very hard to find anything distinctive within it, elegance is at a premium in most MySpace layouts.

Contrast this with Facebook  where your experience is distinctive from the point of arrival, every page has a central achitecture, and your friends with their hand-picked pictures, videos and stream-of-consciousness ravings make itdeeply personal and engaging. Ping ain't got anything like this, and MySpace has a UI problem.

Facebook is winning, MySpace is suffering. It shed 47 percent of its staff this week. With that kind of head count cull, this has to be a service that's up for sale. Who owns it? News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch, that's who.

The same Rupert Murdoch who we are told will be sharing Face time with Apple CEO Steve Jobs for the launch of the iPad newspaper, The Daily, on Jan. 19.

Murdoch likes his iPads

You have to wonder what sort of things those two media moguls find to talk about? Publishing, television, Disney, the iPad 2.0, Apple, iTunes, the impact of Google search on magazine publishing -- could they also be discussing MySpace? Could Apple's battle against Google take a powerful new social turn?

Sure, the notion of a MySpace acquisition is preposterous. After all, short of the license to publish music video, an established presence across the music industry and as a distinctive location for a Web presence for bands at all levels, what would Apple gain? Other than a social network for music, like Ping pretends to be.

Ping isn't sticky

When Ping launched, analyst Michael Gartenberg told the BBC that it could represent a direct challenge to MySpace, saying,

"MySpace is the one that has to look at what this means to them and will probably face the greatest competition from Ping in the short term. They are going to have to figure out a way to differentiate themselves because Apple is already where I am buying my music and this is a natural extension. You wonder why the music industry collectively hasn't thought of this before."

It had. It was called MySpace.

Everyone uses iTunes, but so what? Ping lacks special sauce. Its promise as a social network for music hasn't been realised, despite Apple's hold of 160 million iTunes accounts. I've argued in the past that this is because as a user you can't upload your stuff. You can't make comments on your page -- in fact, there's no reason to visit a personal page unless you happen to be into music marketing. And even then, you get more feedback through MySpace.

Whatever happens, the fate of MySpace is enough to make you wish a media-savvy company with a market-proven excellence in user interface design had the cash and the clout to take on an ailing but once powerful social network in order to engage in a turnaround operation that hasn't been seen since, well, since Steve returned to Apple.

Free souls in a trapped environment

Now imagine if this new MySpace was connected to a cloud-based distributed music service with the capacity for users to distribute their own material on a peer basis beside copyrighted material (and all competely within the law). Here's some potential USP's for such an imagined service:

  • Share what you love
  • Find what you want
  • Rent any music or other media you like for use on up to five machines
  • Carry it with you on your iPhone
  • Chat with friends while watching and listening
  • Express yourself
  • Share your images from live events
  • Find fans for your own music 
  • iTunes Genius --let us entertain you
  • Follow your favorite bands
  • Follow your friends
  • Create Playlists to share with friends

Users could comment and share information about TV, film, books and newspapers, including The Daily. They could chat to friends across the planet in real-time while watching live TV, concert video, using Facetime. Imagine this as something a little like Facebook but with the addition of a la carte media acquisition as well as media rental. Oh, and support across all iTunes-supporting devices.

Would you use this?

Perhaps you can imagine this system hosting its own recommendation engines, perhaps with location-specific technologies to enable whole new relationships. You'd never be lost at Burning Man again, Eric, when you could so easily find friends with similar tastes by hitting a couple of buttons on your iPad or iPhone.

What next?

All of this would also integrate with Facebook (Mashup, right?). Symbiosis is a good thing, particularly should a company also want to create a user base for any future attempts at, oh, I don't know, creating a search engine, maybe?

Will Apple make a move on MySpace? My many critics will say never -- even if Apple were able to purchase MySpace for less than the $580 million News Corp. spent on it in 1995 when people still used it, it remains open to question just how succesfully Apple could leverage its new property.

(Though trying to do so would be one way to get those servers in North Carolina busy, while extending server capacity with the addition of all those 1U flash-based servers which drive MySpace today.)

Whether this ridiculous conjecture is realised or not, it remains clear that Google must take on Apple's iTunes in order to boost Android on its devices. It is equally clear that Apple must think the unthinkable in its attempts to defeat its one time ally, an ally which now seeks to wield its dominance in the search markets in order to crumble Apple's hard-won media empire.

Another question is if either Apple or Google have the talent it takes to succesfully turn an ailing company around. When it comes to turnarounds, Google has no track record. Apple, however, Apple has a think different story.

Could it happen? Sure it could. Will it happen? I don't know. Is MySpace up for sale? Could this be Apple's MySpace moment? What do you think?

Discuss, please, in comments below. And I'd so be pleased if you'd follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when new posts appear here first on Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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