Apple rarely fails publicly. Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants introduce plenty of duds into the market, but not Apple. Even its duds—MobileMe, the iMac mouse—typically disappear in the shadow of subsequent successes—iPods, iPhones, and iPads. But there is one product that almost all critics and even Apple CEO Tim Cook acknowledge is a big, fat flop: Ping.
The iTunes social network that Steve Jobs unveiled in 2010 ranks right up with Color and Clippy as one of the most ridiculed tech turkeys. And it's left the world's most valuable company lagging far behind in social media as competitors Facebook and Google ramp up products and services. To add insult to injury, last week the New York Times reported that Apple had considered making an investment in Twitter. But a deal has yet to come to fruition, and Apple is left with its ugly duckling of a social network. Why did Ping fail?
With iTunes, which boasted 160 million users at the time, Ping had a significant advantage over competitors. But Apple did little to differentiate its network in a crowded space, especially as arguably more social music services like Spotify and Pandora gained popularity. Apple did try to seed the network with artists such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who joined Ping from the start, but those people clung tight to their Twitter and Facebook feeds, too. After failing to get record labels involved and secure a deal with Facebook to share users, reports soon surfaced that Ping had little more than 2,000 artists on the service—a paltry figure compared to the millions on Facebook and even MySpace.
But some critics point to another, more economic reason for Ping's failure. "The fact is you were restricted," says Jon Irwin, president of subscription-music service Rhapsody. "It was all based on a purchase model: If you wanted to go and share, you had to listen to a 30-second sample."
Irwin believes Ping failed because Apple didn't make it easy enough to share the music users truly care about—rather than simply receipts for the songs they purchased. Others in the space have avoided such stumbles—it's arguably the reason why Spotify has become so popular and why Google wanted to enable full-song sharing on Google+. "We have to make sure that if I want to share a song with you, that you can listen to that song whether or not you're a Rhapsody subscriber," Irwin says.
Echo Nest CEO Jim Lucchese agrees with Irwin's diagnosis. "I think the idea of sharing just purchase data was a very myopic view," Lucchese says. "In Ping, if you looked at my account, the only tune you ever saw me Ping was the theme to the Incredible Hulk because I couldn't find it any place. It didn't share any of my listening activity data, and you didn't get a full view into who I was musically."
Users, who flocked to the service in its first days, soon lost interest. "Quite frankly, I used Ping right when it came out, but I soon said, 'Well, this isn't very fun,'" Irwin says. "I don't think I ever went back to it."
Apple's Tim Cook has acknowledged that Ping has failed to find success in the market, and has said the company is looking into whether or not it should shut the network down. "We tried Ping, and I think the customer voted and said, ‘this isn’t something that I want to put a lot of energy into,’" Cook said at the AllThingsD conference in May.
However, Apple has clearly putting energy into its partnership with Twitter, which is now deeply integrated into the iPhone's operating system. And regardless of whether Ping wasn't Apple's answer to social, it's clear the company has to have a leg in the race.
As Cook also said in May, "Does Apple need to be social? Yes."
[Steve Jobs Image: Flickr user Ben Stanfield]