Ping: A Social Network Inside a Walled Garden

Many commentators were dismayed and/or puzzled by Ping’s lack of integration with Facebook and Twitter, especially as Apple was known to be in discussions with Facebook about just such a move. In brief comments following Wednesday’s presentation, Steve Jobs said, without elaborating, that Facebook demanded “onerous terms” for the integration, which Apple “could not agree to.”

As I discuss in a post at GigaOM Pro, Ping’s lack of integration with other social networks, or even with the web itself, is now its most compelling feature, at least from a strategic perspective. As Om noted in his post on Thursday, Ping is essentially an e-commerce platform for music disguised as a social network. If broadly adopted by iTunes users, Ping could significantly enhance iTunes’ power as an e-commerce engine by adding the element of new music discovery that used to be played by radio.

As Inside Digital Media’s Phil Leigh wrote in a research note Thursday, “New release popularity was suffering because digital music forced a decline in radio, the chief recorded music promotional vehicle of the past sixty years. As radio’s successor, Ping permits 160 million iTunes users to spontaneously join affinity groups enabling them to discover new music and artists from one another.”

How many will actually join such groups is very much an open question, however. Not only is Ping starting with the limited universe of iTunes users (compared to the entire web), but it’s functionality is also restricted. Sharing of music tracks, for instance, is limited to 30-second clips. This is presumably to encourage paid downloads, but it’s potentially off-putting to users. Ping’s lack of integration with other social networks, moreover, could limit time-spent and user engagement. How much time do people spend in the iTunes store compared to on Facebook?

Still, if Apple can build a viable social network-cum-commerce platform on its own terms, apart from the rest of the web, it will give marketers, as well as content owners, one more reason to abandon the browser and other web-based platforms for the safety and commercial friendliness of Apple’s walled digital garden.

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