NPR Numbers Ping Among “Worst Ideas of 2010”

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points out many justifiable problems and weaknesses in Apple’s music social networking service, but it also relies on outdated information and unjustly pins policies dictated by the record labels on Apple.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.