The Problem With Ping

I was intrigued by this tweet from my friend Chris Wake, aka the recovering employee. Most of you will by now have heard of Ping, the new music-centered social service built into iTunes 10. Apple is taking the leap into social territory, where even Google can’t seem to find its legs. The question is whether Apple can turn its rabid customer base into usersof a social product.

This tweet was followed up with a link to an article reporting that Ping has had  1,000,000 signups in 48 hours, along with which Chris wondered whether this was proof that fanatical customers do, in fact, equal users. I must admit to being one of those million Ping users, and I thought that I would share some thoughts on what this milestone means, along with my early take on Ping.

First, is 1 million users even a lot? Well, I suppose that any entrepreneur or even established business launching a social network would love to have a million signups in the first two days after launching. Perhaps the only reason they wouldn’t is because it would be near impossible to scale to handle that kind of load if you didn’t see it coming. But this is Apple we’re talking about here, and a product that was announced during a Jobs keynote. For some reference, Apple sold 300,000 iPads on launch day. I know it’s not really a fair comparison for several reasons, but still… Apple’s fanatical customers lined up on launch day to shell out $500 plus for a product in a new category while many of them didn’t even know what they would do with it. A couple of my friends shared a taxi to take them to different Best Buys and Apple Stores all over San Francisco and, when the couldn’t find them, the entire bay area to buy iPads. That’s dedication. Ping, this time free, only attracts roughly 3.3 times as many users in its first 2 days. Now like I said, that’s without a big build-up to a delayed launch day or the iPad’s accompanying media blitz. I’m not saying a million users isn’t a big accomplishment for Ping, but I just wouldn’t use it as final evidence that Apple’s customer base is as good as users. Apple still has something to prove in going social.

Another question I have regarding those million users is what they’re all doing. I reluctantly downloaded iTunes 10 (as I’ve come to learn that new versions of iTunes typically take away more than they give) and signed up, but I felt like I was in a wasteland. I couldn’t find any friends, and unless I was interested in ‘following’ Jack Johnson, Yo-Yo Ma, or some random people I’ve never heard of, I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I actually found myself wondering, like many others, wondering where my Facebooks friends where. The design term ‘uncanny valley’ describes the concept where computer generated humans are incredibly close to looking real, but something isn’t quite right and it becomes creepy. I don’t know how well the term carries over, but I felt like I was in some kind of uncanny valley of social networks. It was close, but something just didn’t feel real about it.

Maybe more users will join and the network effects will kick in, but I don’t really see where anybody is going to actually start creating content on Ping until they do. It’s like Chris Dixon describes in his great post on the bowling pin strategy that I highly recommend you read: if Facebook had launched worldwide, none on the initial users would have really cared what each other were doing, but by starting at Harvard and expanding with users’ personal networks, the seemingly ubiquitous service grew to half a billion engaged, active users. I don’t see how Apple can do that, or anything close, with Ping as it currently exists.

Which brings me to my last point. You might have read this interesting article that likens the difference between the Google web and the Facebook web to pandas and lobsters. Its basic premise is that Google is task oriented, while Facebook is about milling around and ‘wasting’ time without any specific task to accomplish. If I had to guess, I would say that Apple shares Google’s panda point of view, but Ping will be an interesting experiment into whether they can build a lobster trap.

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