Does Apple Even Want to Build a Social Network?

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Last week, at its usual September iPod product refresh, Apple rolled out Ping, and critics simultaneously questioned whether or not Apple could build a social network to challenge the likes of Facebook and Twitter. As I discuss in my weekly column at GigaOM Pro, the real question isn’t if Apple can, but rather, if the folks in Cupertino even want to pursue such a move.

As it stands now, Ping is explicitly about selling music on the iTunes store. Om thinks it foreshadows the future of social commerce, but where else could Apple take Ping, and how far?

Some analysts describe social networking as air, but perhaps the more relevant metaphor is electricity. In this 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’s 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.

Standalone social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, then, 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.

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