Apple (AAPL) announced on Wednesday, Sept.1, a cornucopia of new hardware and software: sleek iPods, a brand-new Internet-enabled video streaming device, and new versions of its iOS software and iTunes 10.However, the most impressive to me by far was Ping, the music-only social network that Apple is opening up to its 160 million existing iTunes users.
No, I'm not blown away by the 160 million number. What I'm impressed by is the thinking behind Ping.
Ping may function like a cross between Facebook and Twitter for iTunes by allowing you to follow celebrities, create social cliques, and get artist updates via an activity stream. I think it could have a tremendous impact on social sharing and commerce.
From a content perspective, there are three different types of media we love to talk about:
movies we see
music we listen to
books we are reading
These are accepted social norms. In fact, many relationships are made on the basis of collective love of a movie and many friendships have started with mixtapes. It makes perfect sense for a music service to be social. I'm not alone: The popularity of YouTube, the fast-growing MOG, and the sadly defunct iLike and Imeem show that people gravitate toward music as a common, collective experience. Thievery Corporation turned me on to The Broadway Project and Chris Joss, which I ended up buying on the iTunes Store or via Amazon's (AMZN) MP3 store.
Combining Social and Commerce
This click-and-go-somewhere-to-download model of affiliate links can never match a unified experience. Amazon, for example, encourages bloggers and others to link to things they like and then get a piece of the action. This separates social from commerce and treats them as two discrete activities. On the post-Facebook Internet, I don't think anyone can afford to keep these two actions distinct.
Ping, from what little I saw during Steve Jobs' demo, allows a similar level of social interaction. It can tell me who my friends think are cool and the top 10 favorites of people in my social graph. Some of my friends are famous deejays. Others just have eclectic musical tastes. They can collectively sift through more than 10 million songs and help with the discovery of music. This social-powered discovery is part of the biggest theme of our times: serendipity. About two years ago, when I wrote about serendipity, I said:
The problem is that there's too much data coming online too quickly, and the traditional method of search that involves first finding and then consuming the information is not going to work for much longer. There just won't be enough time for us to do that and still have a life. It's a problem, and therefore solving it is an opportunity—a very big opportunity.
My belief has only been affirmed by growth in the amount of data available. With 12 million songs and 250,000 apps, the best way for Apple to enhance the iTunes Store—aka its shopping experience—is through the use of social. Back in 2007, I argued that social networking was merely a feature that had to be embedded into applications to enhance their value. Apple has done a great job of that, but it's also gone one step further, not only by adding a social networking layer to iTunes, but by meshing it with its commerce engine, the iTunes Store. And it's made this experience available on both the desktop and its devices.
Apple received much of this social capability with the acquisition of Lala, an online music service, which as a standalone company used sharing of social objects to drive folks toward paid music downloads. Now Apple is only closing the loop by further sharing what users bought. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if sales of music on the iTunes Store rocket upward, thanks to social discovery.
Amazon, which recently started experimenting with Facebook Connect, has similar ideas, but its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. On Amazon, I'm reduced to reading reviews from absolute strangers for music. I have a handful of friends who have impeccable taste in nonfiction business books, are all members of Amazon, and they already use e-mail to share new book suggestions with me.
What if they too could share their likes and dislikes via a social layer inside Amazon.com? Or what if I could follow my favorite authors and get updates on their books? Much like Apple, Amazon owns book-based social service Shelfari and should find ways to embed the social layer inside of all Amazon products and connect its tens of millions of users.
Like Apple, Amazon too has a lot more data about its customers and their behaviors and could create a compelling discovery experience. I believe with tens of thousands of products in its store, the retail giant needs to figure out ways to surface content and other offerings smartly.
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