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Tech Report – iTunes Ping

By Paul O’Reilly

Along with a series of new product announcements and software initiatives, Apple this week introduced Ping, a social networking service that will be available through iTunes. So far, reviews of Ping have been mixed, with the service variously described as a work-in-progress, a MySpace killer, and the future of e-commerce.

After trying it out for a few hours, I am leaning towards the work-in-progress description. Although it has the potential to become a significant platform for sharing musical tastes and trends, there is clearly a feeling of a product rushed to market before it was ready for prime-time. 

The idea of a social network tied to iTunes is entirely logical. Enjoyment of music is universal and it makes perfect sense to check in with friends to see what songs they have downloaded, share iMixes, and read their reviews. In fact, the aforementioned MySpace has largely specialized in music over the last few years as it lost ground in everyday social networking to Facebook.

To access Ping, you will need to download iTunes 10. Once the installation is complete, a link to Ping will appear on the left-hand side of your iTunes home page, directly under “iTunes Store”. When you open Ping for the first time, it will ask you to set up a profile. Your name, city and state, and gender are all required items, and you have the option of adding a photo and writing a brief description of yourself and your musical tastes.

You are also asked to select “Genres I Like” from a comprehensive list of 16. Oddly, though, you are limited to just three selections. If you want to tell people you like alternative, rock, electronic, and hip hop, then you are out of luck – one of them has to go!

At this point, you also select your privacy settings and, as Steve Jobs promised, they are a model of simplicity: you either allow people to follow you or you don’t. If you check “Allow”, then you are also asked if you want to approve people first or just let them follow you anyway. If you allow people to follow you, then your profile, iTunes purchase activity, reviews, etc. will be visible to everyone.

Users should be aware that even if you don’t allow people to follow you, your name and photo will be visible to others if you take certain actions, such as write a review or add a comment.

Once you have set up your profile and made your privacy selections, you can start following people, but here’s where Ping starts to look a little unfinished. There’s a search bar and a way to invite people via e-mail but there’s no way for Ping to search your online address book to tell you who is registered. Building a network one e-mail at a time could be a laborious business and is likely to get Ping off to a slow start.

Even more frustrating, the number of artists that are available to follow is extremely limited and there’s no way to tell if an artist is registered with Ping unless you search for them individually. For example, Lady Gaga is on Ping (141,000 followers) and so is U2, Coldplay and Beyoncé. But try and follow The Killers, Foo Fighters or Counting Crows and you are out of luck. Apple has said that artist participation is currently “by invite only” and they are working hard to bring others on board.

Clearly, the invite-only method of recruitment will have to change if they are ever to threaten the musical dominance of MySpace. One of the great advantages of that site is the ability of even the smallest band to create a Fan Page, which can list concerts, band member bios, recording activities, etc. Of course, there is an inherent conflict of interest with iTunes. Presumably, Apple introduced Ping to help it sell more songs. If a band’s music is not featured on iTunes, then why bother hosting a Fan Page?

But for now, users can search for elusive friends, write reviews and add comments, and follow the Twitter-like utterings of Lady Gaga. But if Ping is ever going to be a long-term success, there needs to be a lot more to it than that.    

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