Apple's Ping Ain't Got That Swing

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PingThe centerpiece of Apple's (APPL) recent product announcements was clearly its new music-centered social network dubbed Ping. The unveiling was both a surprise and totally expected.

Ping's core technology appears to be have been built by the team from, the music streaming startup that Apple acquired in January, 2009. I knew Lala very well: I'd all but migrated my music consumption to Lala where I loved buying streaming rights for 10 cents a song that could then be played on any Web-connected device.

And I'm still smarting from the nifty service's abrupt shut-down, which has cost me a few hundred bucks in songs and left me pining for streams ranging from "Here's to the Halcyon" to Bach's Goldberg variations.

The Challenge in Building a Network

Which brings to me to why Ping doesn't have the right ring. For starters, Apple already had my email address (I'm an Apple customer) and my Lala records. Why not make me whole by inviting me to join Ping and giving me an iTunes store credit to make up for my loss? It wouldn't totally replace the streaming rights, but it would be a nice start and would certainly get me thinking positively about Ping.

But Apple didn't believe it needed to scrape for customers in social networking. Apple's "halo effect" would be more than sufficient. And it was, with 1 million people joining Ping in its first two days. Trouble is, the quality of your network isn't dependent on the first one million users -- it's dependent on the 500 millionth user. Like any true network effect on a business, each node on a social network is more valuable as the size of the network grows. Right now, Ping is essentially a community for the Apple aficionados and the alpha download squad.

Every Apple employee who has a Facebook account must understand the impossibility of building a social network where you can't find and follow your actual friends, and where the entire network is hidden behind avatars or email addresses. Perhaps that feature is coming, but it alludes to another difference in Ping versus other new Apple products. This does not feel like a product where Apple has completely improved on a broken model.

History of Innovation

The genius of the iPod was in turning something that was complicated and failed the Grandma Test (as in, can your grandma run an Archos MP3 player? Not.) into something intuitive and beautifully designed. iTunes also passed this test, automating what had been a dreadful chore of wrenching music from plastic platters or corset-like DRMs. Then came the iPhone, a product that liberated the smartphone from the carriers' grasp and set it free -- and in a single stroke created an ecosystem that has transformed the U.S. from a wireless application backwater to a bellwether.

But in social networking, the model doesn't seem very broken. Facebook, despite its flaws, is doing a pretty good job. People are voting on this by signing up and using the service. Facebook makes it very easy to find and follow friends, interact with large groups of friends and to reconnect and maintain relationships of varying degrees of closeness. This perfectly suits the current zeitgeist where everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing but not to the point of actually interacting in depth with more than a select few friends.

Ping Isn't Transformative

So what problem does Ping solve? I'm not sure. I liked Lala a lot, but it didn't completely blow open a stodgy market. Did it make me stop using Pandora, the Internet-powered free radio service that's actually a much better revenue model based on local advertising? Not a chance. Is it so much better than anything else that I just gotta have it? Without the streaming music model, which I doubt record labels -- still smarting from Apple's quick march to market-maker in their business -- will allow, Ping is half the service Lala used to be.

Maybe Steve knows something that I don't. In fact, he certainly has known a lot more than I claimed to know in the past. But for me, Ping simply doesn't ring true. No, it's not a bad product. I like its looks. The user interface is slick and well designed, like everything Apple does. It's just not terribly transformative. Check back in two years, and let's see where it goes.
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