Apple today introduced Ping, a music social network that is part of iTunes software. It allows iTunes users to share their favorite tunes, buy music recommended by friends and follow their favorite artists. Ping hints at a new future for social commerce.


Apple announced on Wednesday a cornucopia of new hardware and software: sleek iPods, a brand new Internet-enabled video streaming device and new versions of its iOS software and iTunes 10. However, the most impressive to me by far was Ping, the music-only social network that Apple is opening up its 160 million existing iTunes users.

No, I’m not blown away by the 160 million number. What I’m impressed by is the thinking behind Ping.

Ping may function like a cross between Facebook and Twitter for iTunes by allowing you to follow celebrities, create social cliques and get artist updates via an activity stream. I think it could have tremendous impact on social sharing and commerce.

From a content perspective, there are three different types of media we love to talk about:

  • movies we see
  • music we listen to
  • books we are reading

These are accepted social norms. In fact, many relationships are made on the basis of collective love of a movie and many friendships have started with mixed tapes. It makes perfect sense for a music service to be social. I’m not alone: The popularity YouTube, the fast-growing MOG and the sadly defunct iLike and Imeem show that people gravitate towards music as a common, collective experience. Thievery Corporation turned me on to The Broadway Project and Chris Joss, which I ended up buying on the iTunes store or via Amazon’s MP3 store.

This click-and-go-somewhere-to-download model of affiliate links can never match a unified experience. Amazon, for example, encourages bloggers and others to link to things they like and then get a piece of the action. This separates social from commerce and treats them as two discrete activities. On the post-Facebook Internet, I don’t think anyone can afford to keep these two actions distinct.

Ping, from what little I saw during Steve Jobs’ demo, allows a similar level of social interaction. It can tell me who my friends think are cool and the top 10 favorites of people in my social graph. Some of my friends are famous deejays. Others just have eclectic musical tastes. They can collectively sift through over 10 million songs and help with the discovery of music. This social-powered discovery is part of the biggest theme of our times: serendipity. About two years ago, when I wrote about serendipity, I said:

The problem is that there’s too much data coming online too quickly, and the traditional method of search that involves first finding and then consuming the information is not going to work for much longer. There just won’t be enough time for us to do that and still have a life. It’s a problem, and therefore solving it is an opportunity — a very big opportunity.

My belief has only been affirmed by growth in the amount of data available. With 12 million songs and 250,000 apps, the best way for Apple to enhance the iTunes store – aka its shopping experience — is through the use of social. Back in 2007, I argued that social networking was merely a feature that had to be embedded into applications to enhance their value. Apple has done a great job of that, but it’s also gone one step further, not only by adding a social networking layer to iTunes, but by meshing it with its commerce engine, the iTunes Store. And it’s made this experience available on both the desktop and its devices.

Apple received much of this social capability with the acquisition of Lala, an online music service, which as a standalone company used sharing of social objects to drive folks towards paid music downloads. Now Apple is only closing the loop by further sharing what users bought. I wouldn’t be least bit surprised if sales of music on the iTunes store rocket upwards, thanks to social discovery.

Amazon, which recently started experimenting with Facebook Connect, has similar ideas, but its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. On Amazon, I’m reduced to reading reviews from absolute strangers for music. I have a handful of friends who have impeccable taste in non-fiction business books, are all members of Amazon, and they already use email to share new book suggestions with me.

What if they too could share their likes and dislikes via a social layer inside Amazon.com? Or what if I could follow my favorite authors and get updates on their books? Much like Apple, Amazon owns book-based social service, Shelfari, and should find ways to embed the social layer inside of all Amazon products and connect its tens of millions of users.

Like Apple, Amazon too has a lot more data about its customers and their behaviors and could create a compelling discovery experience. I believe with tens of thousands of products in its store, the retail giant needs to figure out ways to surface content and other offerings smartly.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d)Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

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  1. OM – been a while since I cruised by GigaOM – and the browse was worth it. You make the points very well – good post. Cheers!

  2. Great essay – I agree totally. Oftentimes we see broad initial communications applications that then fragment into vertical interest areas.

  3. Great article, really hits the nail on the head. This is the way companies need to think about social networking.

    However, the nature of social networks also require openess, which is uncomfortable for many companies, Apple included. Without that, these ventures may not “stick”. We’ll have to see how they do with it. For example if Ping users, recognising the commercial value of their voice, decide to organize against a song, a group or maybe even a record company who the feel is abusing artists, how is Apple going to react? Apple tends to be pretty heavy handed and that may backfire on them.

  4. a social net inside a desktop app?

    if anyone can make that work it is apple

  5. Why Ping Is a Stepping Stone to Social Commerce Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    [...] by subscribing for free to the RSS feed. Let's dig in.I am a huge fan of Om Malik. I just read his post on Apple’s Ping service, and have a difference of opinion. Om points out that it’s great that Apple is finally adding [...]

  6. This seems to be a problem I have with Amazon (but don’t with Apple), I buy something I’m going to give as a gift and it throws their entire recommendation engine off. Apple is strict product categories and not physical products so other than gift cards I don’t buy specific gifts thru iTunes. So, not sure Amazon could pull it off.

    1. Amazon makes it easy to delete a specific purchase that you don’t want it to consider when making purchase recommendations.

  7. You mention movies being something people love to talk about. What is your take on Netflix’s failure with ‘Friends’? Ping sounds pretty similar to this.

  8. Zune has had these features and more for a long long time. Apple need to spend time rewriting iTunes, rather than just copying Microsoft with XBOX Live and Zune.

    1. Zune? What’s that ;-)

      1. simple:
        iPod is to Zune, as
        Windows is to Mac, and
        Android is to iPhone

  9. Apple and social couldn’t be more opposite; Social is antithesis Apple’s command and control DNA

    1. but completely agree with you and more to the point music and movies are not at the heart of social networks by any means. Most people talk about much more interesting and sublime things. I just tried using Ping and it only took three minutes before I was totally bored. Itunes is just a store and an expensive one at that.

  10. Hamranhansenhansen Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    I’m just waiting for someone to explain to me how Google is going to revolutionize online music through social networking any moment now, and therefore iTunes Ping is irrelevant.

    > a social net inside a desktop app?

    iTunes Ping is a feature of iTunes Store, not iTunes. iTunes Store is not a desktop app, it’s a cloud app. You can access it from any Apple product or from a Windows PC running iTunes. The reason it’s not accessible from a Web app is the Web only just recently got audio video support, and the majority of browsers are not even compatible with that audio video support yet, while iTunes Store is 8 years old.

    But even just iTunes for Windows by itself has a larger installed base than Facebook has users. So it is not hard for users to access iTunes Store if they want to.

    1. >>The reason it’s not accessible from a Web app is the Web only just recently got audio video support, and the majority of browsers are not even compatible with that audio video support yet<<

      Don't be a fool. The Web has had this for years. It's called Flash.

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