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Can Apple Build a Real Social Network?

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Or maybe the question is, “Does Apple want to build a real social network?” Last week, at its usual September iPod product refresh, Apple rolled out Ping, a collection of social networking services tied to the iTunes Store. Much was written about how Ping did or didn’t integrate Facebook. The term “walled garden” came up.

As it stands now, Ping is explicitly about selling music on the iTunes store. Om thinks it foreshadows the future of social commerce, but how far could Apple take Ping, and other initiatives like the Game Center services soon to be built into iOS? Could Apple build a social network that could challenge Facebook and Twitter?

What Makes a Real Social Network?

Social networks are challenging the web portals of the ’90s (Yahoo, AOL, MSN) as the dominant content and communications paradigm. They’re permeating mobile communications, affecting enterprise collaboration and even taking a shot at television. Let’s take a quick look at what makes a social network, and how Apple measures up:

  • User Profiles house information about the person and collect identification and authentication services. Ping profiles have very limited information about users’ music preferences. Ping uses Apple ID, which enables credit card authorization and check-in, although almost exclusively to Apple — rather than third-party — products and services.
  • Social Graphs map the relationships between profiles and the activities of the user, and offer potentially powerful marketing and advertising targeting. Ping users explicitly make music recommendations to their friends and followers. Apple was using collaborative filtering and favorite-watching to create recommendations and playlists before Ping.
  • Platforms offer APIs and services so developers can build applications. Social networks also work as distribution channels — viral or otherwise — for those apps. Apple certainly knows platforms, but iTunes and its App Store aren’t very social yet, and Apple hasn’t revealed a Ping API strategy.
  • User Interfaces and user experience are elements Apple practically defines itself by. Modern social networks have replaced the profile page with a stream of real-time information. Ping’s UI mimics that approach, and features Apple’s classic simplicity and elegance, but so far offers none of the charm or serendipity of iOS. Ironically, Apple hasn’t contributed anything to social network UI; even its iPhone integration of third-party social networks is unexceptional.

Air and Electricity: Services or Applications?

Some analysts describe social networking as air, but perhaps the more relevant metaphor is electricity. In that view, companies and sites tap into social networking to create applications or experiences. Right now, Apple is treating social media as electricity to fuel its own shopping and communications applications.

Apple makes its money by selling products and “renting” its distribution channel. It likely won’t hire an advertising sales force, and Apple Me.com is a weak collection of fee-based services. I suspect Apple’s more comfortable creating social networking features that enhance its products and marketplaces, rather than building out a free-standing social network.

Competitive Implications

Standalone social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn probably won’t face Apple as a head-to-head competitor for their audiences, advertisers or what they deliver as their core user experience. Apple doesn’t appear to be interested in building a general-purpose social network, a short message broadcasting service or a professional connections network. MySpace is way ahead of Apple in gathering artists’ pages and a social music audience, but Apple’s ability to drive sales makes it a fierce competitor for label attention.

Those companies, and others like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, who aspire to provide social media APIs, services and even infrastructure, should cultivate, rather than compete with Apple, especially if they want to reach Apple’s customers. That means they should license or, if Apple’s in its usual DIY mode, integrate their own social networking technologies with Apple’s. By the time you read this, Ping users may be able to find their friends via Facebook Connect.

Related Research:With Ping, Apple Builds a Social Network Inside a Walled Garden

Question of the week

Could Apple build a social network that could challenge Facebook and Twitter?