With Ping, Apple Builds a Social Network Inside a Walled Garden

By Apple’s usual standards, Wednesday’s series of announcements seemed like pretty weak stuff: remodeled iPods, a revamped Apple TV that does little more than a Roku box did two years ago, and an iTunes update.

Even the new iTunes music-centric social network, Ping, the one novel element in Steve Jobs’ presentation, drew tepid initial reviews. “Ping on iTunes — Not so hot,” declared PC World. “Apple’s Ping pongs a bit right now,” sniffed the Telegraph.

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. Some iTunes users even stumbled on a vestigial Facebook Connect widget still lurking in Ping on Wednesday before Apple was able to remove it. In brief comments following the presentation, Steve Jobs said, without elaborating, that Facebook demanded “onerous terms” for the integration, which Apple “could not agree to.”

Yet whether by design or accident, 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.

Ping runs only inside the iTunes client, linked to your iTunes account, which is in turn linked to your credit card. What Ping aims to create is not a seamless fabric of interconnected networks, but several discreet networks joined only by the shared e-commerce functionality of iTunes. It’s social networking without the World Wide Web, which, coming from anyone but Apple, would sound nonsensical.

For Apple, Ping has the same relation to the rest of the web as does the iTunes App Store. As I discussed in my GigaOM Pro Research Note Apple’s Path to the Living Room, the App Store platform is designed to provide content owners the means to leverage the efficiency and flexibility of digital distribution without risking the hazards of the web’s open standards. Content in an app is immune from indexing by search engines, from aggregation, from third-party advertising and, most of all, from redistribution. The App Store, in other words, is fundamentally an e-commerce and publishing platform for content owners that’s disguised as a user-friendly web platform.

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.

Question of the week

Can Ping succeed without integration with other social platforms?