Apple iTunes’ Ping launched Wednesday night to a flurry of chatter lauding it as a MySpace killer, only to land Thursday morning amid criticism and a nasty break-up with Facebook. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, let’s take a look at what Ping is, as well as what it could have been.
Om claimed that Ping is the future of social commerce, but its sole focus on purchases and its presence behind a walled garden may hinder that bright future. Here are the four main issues Apple has to work on quickly for Ping to be successful:
Ping’s main method of social interaction is based only on new purchases.
In order to populate a social network of any kind, you need to give users the ability to share whatever it is they bring with them. I have over 6000 songs on my laptop alone, and that’s not including what I have stored on my external drive. Probably a third of those were purchased via iTunes. In order to share any of that music with those who are following me, I have to click out of Ping and into the iTunes Store, find an album I already own, and click “Like” on the drop-down menu. It’s a counter-intuitive UI involving too much effort on the part of the user. My music stream — and my actions on certain favorite or hated songs — can already be shared on other services. Why would I bother going through all that when I can click “Love” on last.fm (which is already running in my dock) and share that song through another social network, which may already be providing direct links to Amazon MP3 or another service for purchase?
In addition, Ping is so divorced from the iTunes experience that when I let it auto-populate my “Music I Like” selections at sign-up, soon I had 10 selections of my kids’ music, which they bought with gift cards they’d received as presents. No, Ping, those one-star selections of Hannah Montana and the Chipmunk movie soundtracks are not “music I like.” In fact, when rating that music in iTunes, I think that one-star rating I assigned the kids’ music said I really didn’t like it at all. Buying does not equal liking.
Ping doesn’t allow you to create new tangential conversations, or share additional statuses, locations, or activities with your social graph.
In order to begin any conversation on Ping, I have to do something involving the iTunes store: hunt down a song or album and Like or Post it, or buy something. I can’t begin a conversation with “Hey, did any of you catch that live Arcade Fire show on YouTube? What did you think?” Again, there’s an opportunity here for smart-linking to products based on organic conversations, and Apple is missing the boat. I may think to leave a comment if a purchase or a “like” happens by in my stream, but if I’ve already liked or bought an album and want to bring it up later, I’d have to go digging for the old conversation. I can’t start another one.
The concept may be Apple, but the UI certainly isn’t.
The one point that any Apple fanboy (or fangirl) has always been able to make without argument is how intuitive Apple’s UIs have always been. It’s the original company with a plug-in-and-go M.O. for its products, yet even on Wednesday night, when I joined Ping and talked about it with the early adopter crowd on Twitter, we were all stumbling about. If people who have more than 400 log-in IDs for social networks are confused about how to go about interacting with each other on a social site, how will an average user be able to figure it out? The familiar status box you see at the top of the screen on every social network is missing. If you want to comment on another user’s activity, you have to seek out a small link to pop up a comment box (an existing whitespace would be much more obvious). Worst of all, the drop-down menu that appears on albums or songs in your stream appears to be part of the “Buy Album” button by design, which could make wary users afraid they might purchase the album rather than comment on it.
This is Creating a Social Network 101. No one wants to sign up for a new service, only to manually seek out the same group of people they are friends with on Facebook and follow on Foursquare. They want a quick and simple method of importing contacts from a service like Facebook Connect. The post-launch implosion of an Apple-Facebook deal to piggyback on Facebook’s social graph was a devastating blow for populating a new service. Apple needs to do something quickly to replace it, or those signing up will quickly tire of logging in only to find there’s no new activity in the past three hours. Social networks need a constant stream of activity to keep users engaged.
As for trying to convince my friends to use the service, they don’t want to be bothered, for the most part. They’re already using services on Facebook or MySpace to share music in a much simpler fashion than Ping is providing. In the nearly 48 hours since launch, I’ve assembled a circle of real-world friends and tech connections that, with combined followers and those I follow, is less than 30. Considering I have over 300 friends on Facebook, that’s a pretty small percentage of my social graph.
I listen to my iTunes library during my work day, alternating with Pandora. While I’ll frequently click over to last.fm (if iTunes is running) or Pandora to like or block a song, it’s too hard to do that with Ping because I have to take a break from whatever I’m doing to hunt it down. My other social music sharing is as simple as flipping to another window and clicking a single button. When I do check in to Ping, I have to manually refresh and it’s often hours between updates. Right now, Ping is a lonesome place that seems to be populated only by diehard early adopters and Apple fans.
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