NPR Numbers Ping Among “Worst Ideas of 2010”

| Analysis

NPR has named Ping one of the “Worst Ideas of 2010” in a year-end roundup the news organization assembled. Penned by Latoya Peterson, the piece points out many justifiable problems and weaknesses in Apple’s music social networking service, but it also relies on outdated information and unjustly pins policies dictated by the record labels on Apple.

Let us start off by noting that we also believe that Ping has many shortcomings, and that Apple is going to have to make many more changes and improvements in the service (not least of which is integration with Facebook) before Ping will have much of a life. The point of this analysis is not to defend a weak offering by Apple, but rather to point out weak reporting from what is arguably one of the best news organizations on the planet.

The Mostly Right On

Right off the bat, Ms. Peterson gets to the real heart of Ping’s problem by noting, “Why Ping is floundering can be summed up in a sentence: Apple doesn’t like sharing, thus, it is difficult for them to build a social network.”

This is quite true. Apple does not like to share, but this is actually a two-edged sword. The company often doesn’t work well with others, and it has heretofore refused to share iTunes with other hardware vendors and platforms (Palm, Android, etc.). At the same time, however, Apple has also refused to share our customer information with third parties, including its own app developers.

Indeed, that refusal to share customer info is one of the reasons Apple hasn’t been able to work a deal with Facebook, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg wants our info, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs won’t give it to him. At least not yet — Mr. Zuckerburg said in November that the two companies are working through the issues, so we’ll see.

Clearly being bad at sharing has had a negative impact on Ping’s fortunes, but we think it’s a good thing that Apple has worked so hard to develop the iOS ecosystem in a way that leaves just one outside entity in charge of our data, and that’s Apple itself [Editor’s Note: As noted in the comments below, The Wall Street Journal said that this isn’t the case. - Editor].

To be fair, the real point Ms. Peterson was trying to make is that Ping is closed off, and this makes it hard for users to actually do anything with it. You can’t pull it up in a browser, you can’t pull it up as a standalone app, and you can’t make status updates that aren’t related to music in the iTunes Store.

This is definitely the bad side of being bad at sharing, and it’s why it seems to many outside observers that Ping should have been implemented from the beginning as an add-on service for Facebook, and not solely as a part of iTunes itself.

Ms. Peterson also directly criticizes the fact that the only music that one can comment on are tracks Apple sells in iTunes:

Riddle me this: How did the Apple crew create a social networking site for music way back in September, but only introduce a way to swap playlists four months later? Considering how important playlists are to the organization of a healthy music collection, one would imagine that type of functionality would have been ready at launch. But don’t let the new functionality fool you — Ping restricts even this sharing to songs that already appear in the iTunes store. That great band you saw in concert and bought their $10 CD? They don’t make the cut. Picked up a love for k-pop sensation 2NE1 from a semester abroad in Korea? You’ll need to write that information into your profile.

The first point about Playlists is weirdly myopic — for instance, many people that grew up with LPs think of their music in terms of artists and albums, not playlists — there is no one way to organize one’s music and Ms. Peterson is projecting.

The other point about local bands and bands from other lands is very valid, however. Apple’s walled garden approach excludes too much to be the kind of ultimate music social networking service many users would like it to be.

The last point we think Ms. Peterson posed that falls into the “Mostly Right On” category is that Apple’s means of sharing songs with your friends leaves much to be desired. She wants for Apple to let us listen (i.e. stream) songs our friends send us in their entirety, which is a good idea, but she offers several examples of this that are ad-supported.

Get Your Facts Straight

Unfortunately, the piece goes off into “get your head out of your Android” territory from here. The article attacks Apple’s DRM restrictions on iTunes downloads without once mentioning that Apple removed those restrictions starting in January of 2009.

In criticizing it, she pulls out an EFF report from 2007 attacking the DRM that’s no longer included on iTunes songs. She also references a 2004 change in the number of times users could burn a playlist — from 10 to 7 — without mentioning that users were also newly allowed to share songs with 5 users, up from three.

She also failed to mention that both restrictions were demanded by the record labels in the first place, pinning all iTunes DRM on Apple’s desire to maximize revenues. To illustrate this, she cited an excellent Ars Technica piece on DRM from 2007, two years before Apple removed its DRM. In fact, much of the writeup is a screed on the evils of DRM, a screed we agree with in principle, but one that isn’t relevant when iTunes no longer saddles us with DRM.

The last critique she had was the way celebrity Ping accounts are used, comparing them to bad celebrity Twitter accounts. She even found an example of one such account, Taio Cruz. The problem with this, in our opinion, is that one Rick Rubin is worth 100 Taio Cruzes (in any number of ways). Following the incredible number of posts and Likes Mr. Rubin makes on Ping is a musical education for the rest of us — one bad apple (pun unintended) don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.

There is plenty to criticize about Ping, and Ms. Latoya’s submission for the Worst Ideas of 2010 would have felt less like an Apple bashing piece if she had stuck to those issues.

Comments

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Indeed, that refusal to share customer info is one of the reasons Apple hasn?t been able to work a deal with Facebook, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg wants our info, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs won?t give it to him. At least not yet ? Mr. Zuckerburg said in November that the two companies are working through the issues, so we?ll see.

This needs to be put in context. Thanks to the ubiquity of Facebook, the intersection of Apple customers and Facebook users is a far bigger subset than the subset of Apple users who don’t use Facebook. And that’s why Facebook could let Apple/Ping go without any worry. They don’t need it. Apple needs them.

There are many here who think that people are unknowingly giving up their privacy to Facebook, and that Apple was right to resist this. In my personal experience, the benefits of being on Facebook have far outweighed downsides. Top benefit: I know that a few people who I had lost touch with, who I really care(d) about are alive and thriving. Important friendships have been renewed, and I’ve realized why they were so important at the time—because they were important period. Providing that feeling with such low friction is what makes Facebook so compelling, and gives it a negotiating position far superior to Apple’s in connecting people.

In short, Apple sees only costs here, not benefits, and that’s why they suck at social.

Peter

we think it?s a good thing that Apple has worked so hard to develop the iOS ecosystem in a way that leaves just one outside entity in charge of our data, and that?s Apple itself.

How’s that working for you?

(I noticed that you guys seemed to not feel like reporting that story, but maybe you just missed it.)

Pete Maravich

It’s hypocritical of the author to claim this is shoddy and inaccurate reporting from NPR and then fall over himself defending it like some sort of Apple apologist. 

Just because he doesn’t like what they’re saying doesn’t mean it’s wrong. 

And yes, Ping is a day late and a dollar short.  Last.fm has been around for six or seven years, and does what Ping is trying to do far better.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@Peter: That’s an example of why I thought app approval through a single legitimate channel was a bad idea from day 1. Technically speaking, it’s not possible to prevent this behavior. By “technically speaking”, I mean involving both software and social systems (like Apple’s approval process). It is possible to strive for transparency and continually up your transparency game in response to “innovative” developers. That’s been Google’s philosophy. Funny how bottom-line, the laissez faire approach is just as effective as the tightly controlled approach. Well, funny if you bought the Apple line to begin with, not surprising in the least to anyone who’s ever dealt seriously with security and privacy grin.

Bryan Chaffin

Just because he doesn?t like what they?re saying doesn?t mean it?s wrong.?

You’re right. It’s because she’s wrong that she’s wrong.

I spent about 1000 words showing how and why the things I said are wrong are wrong.

I used some of those words to explain that I believe that Ping has many shortcomings, elaborated on many of those same shortcomings. Rather than defending Ping (which I basically didn’t do), I criticized factual errors in the reporting and suggested specifically and in clear language that Ms. Peterson’s article would have had more credibility had she spent more time looking at Ping’s real weaknesses.

It’s almost like you didn’t read my piece before commenting on it, Mr. Maravich.

Bryan Chaffin

How?s that working for you?

(I noticed that you guys seemed to not feel like reporting that story, but maybe you just missed it.)

I did miss that one, Pete, and it’s a fair point. I added a link to the article as an Editor’s Note.

FlipFriddle

The NPR article title should be worst MUSIC ideas in 2010. If it’s worst ideas of the year, nothing this trivial should be included. A bit misleading.

daemon

Is it possible to buy songs on iTunes with DRM?

computerbandgeek

Is it possible to buy songs on iTunes with DRM?

No, but all the videos you get are protected.

BJN

I’ve been reading through the year-end articles on ping, and I am finding it very frustrating that no one who writes about it actually seems to use ping—they all tried it and basically decided “it sucked” and that was that.  Speaking as a very heavy user, in a large circle of other very heavy users, the site though full of problems is far from being a failure.  In my experience, the people who use it are very interested in music, though they don’t work in the music industry, and feel cut off from their interest except on ping.  Most users also find it addictive.  Critics are correct that there is little point in using the site to connect to artists, at least major ones.  What it is good for is finding an international community of serious, interesting, articulate music lovers who want to discuss music—and for that it is unparalleled.

daemon

BJN, as a heavy user, how did you like not being able to post anything on Ping? Or not being able to post comments on anything you didn’t already purchase from iTunes? Which ironically prevented you from being able to tell all your friends on Ping about that really great indy band you saw last night….

Anyways, all the true music lovers I know prefer vinyl.

BJN

Hi Daemon, I’m not sure what you mean when you say you can’t post songs or comment.  You can post any song that is sold by Itunes—you don’t have to own it.  The same goes for comments.  Obviously this affects some people much more than others.  Other than a few Allman Brothers songs not carried by Itunes, I have not been troubled by it. There is also an annoying run-around when you want to sample a song sold by a foreign Itunes branch—you often have to search for it in your own store, and extra step, but not a barrier; and occasionally bands are offered in one store, say the Australian, but not the US.  As for Vinyl—it depends how big your living space is—some of my friends on ping own 20,000 songs.  I assure you they are genuine music lovers.

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