iTunes is due a major redesign later this year, according to reports. In a recent column I looked at what may and may not emerge from the revamp of the cluttered interface.
Integration with social network sites is bound to be a core feature of the new iTunes but we know for sure that Ping, Apple’s first shot at creating its own social network, will not make the cut.
Ping was announced by Steve Jobs as “sort of like Facebook and Twitter meets iTunes” but described it as “something else… all about music”.
At the time Jobs launched Ping, iTunes had around 160 million user accounts. Unfortunately for Apple, 160 million users did not result in 160 million active Ping users.
The service rapidly attracted two million subscribers but people were quick to label it a flop. Ping was a basic service that launched with a handful of artists and worked on the simple premise that users could follow each other’s music purchases and listen to snippets of tracks from the vast iTunes catalogue.
However, it never really evolved. Apple often releases products and then develops them iteratively, but there was little real development with Ping.
Apple chief Tim Cook pulled the plug in June. Just before Ping’s demise he told a recent All Things Digital conference: “We tried Ping and the customer voted and said, this isn’t something I want to put a lot of energy into. Some customers love it, but there’s not a huge number that do, so will we kill it? I don’t know. I’ll look at it.”
Ping was a rare bum note for Apple. Launched with such fanfare in 2010 and closed with an embarrassed cough in June, the social network for music failed to gain traction, capture fans or fire the imagination.
Why did it fail? There are a few reasons but one really key one.
Reason 1. Just another social network
To start with, it was just another social network and how many do people need? Ping had a single purpose but others did it better. Most people seem to be either on Facebook or Twitter, or less commonly both. Both are capable of sharing tracks and videos.
Yet this sharing was the only thing Ping did compared with the broader range of products offered by other social networks.
It wasn’t really a social network with any genuine sense of sharing and socialising, just a vehicle for selling iTunes tracks. It’s scope and interest were limited so the user experience was not compelling.
Reason 2. Tagged-on service
Secondly, Ping was buried - as with many other things within the iTunes interface, and I don’t think most people like spending a lot of time in iTunes. It seemed like a tagged-on service rather than a pure-play social web challenger. Furthermore it only provided snippets of songs to preview, initially only 30 seconds could be heard.
Reason 3. Filtered environment
Thirdly, like all things Apple, it was a sanitised environment. Profile photos were filtered and even some of the material from artists such as Lady Gaga were censored. With so much control over what was posted it did take a bit of fun out of the service, like attending a party with no alcohol.
Reason 4. Lack of Facebook integration
These are all relatively minor issues. I think the real problem for Ping came before it was even launched. One of the really intriguing subplots of the Ping story has to do with its integration - or lack thereof - with Facebook.
Lack of integration with the biggest social network was what really killed Ping. Jobs demoed a version of Ping where the social network featured a connection with Facebook, yet when it launched the situation was confused. Some could connect, others couldn’t.
Eventually it emerged that the integration with Facebook was pulled due to what Jobs described as “onerous” terms. Given the Facebook links appeared in the Ping demo, it’s clear the failure to agree to the “onerous” terms was a last-minute event, and the early success of Ping relied on the integration of Facebook.
At the time of launch in 2010, Facebook was enjoying a sunny pre-IPO heyday. A golden handshake through integration via a Facebook API would have given Ping an essential boost through piggy-backing on the main social web platform of the time.
When people talk of walled gardens in relation to Apple, my eyes start to glaze over. But ironically the inability to agree common ground with Facebook left Ping isolated within iTunes and with no exposure to the rest of the social web. Users would have to start all over again, finding friends before they could start to share and follow.
With Mountain Lion and iOS 6, the social network becomes part of threads running through the fabric of the OS rather than another, separate product. There’s less to think about when you want to share something because the share sheet, as Apple calls them, is built-in and ubiquitous. Hit the share link and in a second you can share to Email, Twitter or, soon, Facebook.
The timing of Ping’s end was odd. It would have been interesting if Ping had been allowed to try and gain traction from the sharing to social networks that is so ingrained in Mountain Lion and iOS 6. Those features might have given it a new lease of life. But it was too late. Two years of failure is a long time and Apple does not tolerate even a little.