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Dialectical Materialist
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  • What Monica from "Friends" Can Teach Us About Why Ping May Fail 12 comments
    Sep 7, 2010 10:18 AM | about stocks: AAPL

    As was widely reported, Apple (AAPL) recently announced the addition of a “social network for music” to its latest version of iTunes.  Ping, as they have inexplicably chosen to call this service, could have a noticeable impact on the value of the company if it is successful.  Such a service could provide a gold mine of consumer data, drive increasing iTunes sales, and, keep people in the Apple environment a little longer each day.  Each minute you are with Apple is another minute you are not with its competition.

    So I tried it out and I’ve been thinking about what I experienced.  Not much, is the short story.  For the longer explanation of how I feel about this service, at least so far, I need to go back a few days…

    I was flipping channels and I paused on an old episode of Friends. Monica was throwing a party.  At least she was trying to.  It was clear to everyone but her that her guests were not enjoying themselves. Why not?  You’d think an OCD attention to detail take charge person like Monica Gellar would throw an awesome party.  No detail would go unnoticed.  Well, you’d be almost right.  The problem is that Monica took her party so seriously she tried to control her guests’ every move. After asking them to use pens to write something down, she instructed her guests on how to cap the pen tightly after use.  She even complained shortly afterward that “Not everyone is capping his pen tightly, people!”

    Very funny for the audience at home but very painful for the party goers.  At least this time the guests were all paid actors.  But if you’ve already been on Ping you may see where this is going.

    I’m not overly excited about social networking in general. I don’t use Twitter and I deleted my Facebook account last year after trying it for a few weeks to see what the fuss was all about.  Many folks like me past 40 understand the usefulness of sampling current trends if for no other reason than to understand the jokes on TV or be able to have something resembling a conversation with a 20 year old.

    Still, in this day and age social media and membership based internet sites (like Seeking Alpha) are inescapable and often useful tools for a great many folks on a daily basis, regardless of how I feel about some of them.  I was sad when a blogger I used to read for her provocative political topics recently tweeted that she was “surprised she could eat a bagel so quickly”.  I only saw the tweet because it appeared in the sidebar of her blog.  She used to lament overconsumption in densely worded page-long rants about the consumer culture, but she had now redefined overconsumption for all intents and purposes to the speed at which she ate her bagel.  It took us over a hundred years to go from the richness and complexity of a newspaper article to the misleading shallowness of the sound bite.  On the internet we did the same trip in a few short years.  Who can say something useful in 140 characters? But I digress.  (A luxury I enjoy because I am not tweeting!)

    I tried Ping for two reasons.  The first is that I am an Apple fan and investor.  I was curious to see the business impact of such a product. And the second is that I thought it might actually be a good idea. Whereas other social media suffer from lack of focus and the inability to distinguish the relative value of information (“I just ate a bagel” and “Israel warns Iran” compete in the same space on Twitter), a music site just might provide the focus so many networks need.  I come to Seeking Alpha when I want to talk stocks or read about the economy. Maybe along a similar vein I could visit Ping when I wanted to talk about and share music.

    I made my profile Friday night.  I chose a picture from Halloween a couple years ago.  I had bought a Sgt. Pepper costume on eBay and had even spent a couple weeks (okay maybe it was a month) growing the facial hair that completed the look.  I thought it was a perfect profile pic for a music site.  It shows a side of me my employees have certainly never seen.  Most of them probably don’t even think I know who the Beatles are. (Some of them may not know who Sgt. Pepper is, but I can’t go there or I get sad.)  iTunes, of course won’t admit it knows who the Beatles are, but that’s a different story.

    So I got my profile fired up.  Chose a few folks to follow.  Bought a song.  And then I… ran out of things to do.

    See a major flaw in the model is that users do not get to do the same things that artists do.  While Lady Gaga gets to post videos and comment on her latest exploits (we’ll forget for the moment that Lady Gaga is not actually at her computer doing these things), I get to decide if I “like” her comment or if I’d like to buy a song.

    For my friends (if I can find them) I get to tell them the types of music I enjoy.  (But I’d better not like more than three and none of them better be Punk, Bluegrass, or Folk.  I guess many people are using singer/songwriter for folk, but Bluegrass isn’t country or blues and if you think it is maybe you’d better not try to design a social networking site devoted to music.  Spoken Word is a choice, though, thank goodness. We’d hate to leave out all those people who attend Spoken Word festivals!)

    I also get to recommend up to ten examples of music that I like.  Filling this area of my profile was a fascinating psychological experiment. Trying to find ten songs you think adequately describe your taste in music is really hard for most people who enjoy music.  And that wouldn’t be a problem except this is supposed to be a social networking site DEVOTED to music.  I understand there has to be some limit on each profile, but I wonder what possessed the designers to cap the song list at ten.  Since I can only like three kinds of music, remember, maybe ten songs should be enough.

    To be fair I can make comments, but not in the way a user can on Facebook.  The profile area on Ping is nothing like your wall on Facebook, and frankly feels more closely related to the claustrophobia of Twitter’s 140 character limit. 

    I can understand that Apple did not want to just reproduce Facebook within iTunes.  I can see they wanted to bring some focus to the site. But they seem to take so seriously their idea of what I should want to do for fun that I can’t even loosen my tie.

    There’s still hope for Ping.  The service is young.  And with the right changes they may have a product that adds value to their brand and helps keep their story alive even as their market cap grows to astounding levels.  But they need to get going.  C’mon Apple.  Lighten up.  You can’t throw a party and then stand over your guests making sure they cap their pens tightly.  That sound you hear?  That’s all your guests not having any fun yet.  Can’t we just crank the tunes and get this party started?  I won’t even request any Beatles, I promise. 


    Disclosure: Long AAPL
    Stocks: AAPL
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Comments (12)
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  • Mark Bern, CFA
    , contributor
    Comments (7517) | Send Message
    DM - It sounds like Apple has created a huge focus group forum to enable their marketing department to collect music preferences from users so they can decide what to try to sell them. I suspect that the whole thing was designed by marketing gurus with their own corporate needs and interests at the forefront. It sounds as though they also held all creative sessions in a vacuum with a top down approach to design and no suggestions from the broader community being tolerated. That sounds a lot like how Monica planned her party. But as you say, the site is young and it is always easier to add functionality than to take it away. Hopefully they will ask users what they'd like, listen, and address the most sought after concepts.
    7 Sep 2010, 04:18 PM Reply Like
  • Dialectical Materialist
    , contributor
    Comments (5080) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » I agree, Mark. If the knock on social networking is that it has not been properly monetized yet, leave it to Apple to do that. The problem is that they left out the social in their networking! I love the convenience of being able to buy a song a friend (either someone I know or whose tastes I find are similar to mine) may be getting into. I can easily see upping my monthly purchases of music because I will have others recommending things I may enjoy (which is basically Apple getting other folks to do its selling for it). If one quarter of iTunes 160 million installed user base drops 10 bucks more a month in music, that is $400 million a month in sales increase. If that number is too high, one could easily see a boost of $1B a year. Nothing to sneeze at.


    But you're right. They need to make it more than just a focus group in order to keep people coming back.


    Thanks for taking the time to comment.
    7 Sep 2010, 04:29 PM Reply Like
  • Mark Bern, CFA
    , contributor
    Comments (7517) | Send Message
    And the bottom line is that managing the site will be a relatively static cost and probably minuscule relative to the revenue. That means that the vast majority of the new revenue falls to the bottom line, which is the bottom line. Now all they have to do is figure out how to monetize the concept and use it to draw an even bigger audience of users to Apple products. Well, there is that part about having fun at the site that still needs some work. I think that they saw the big opportunity picture and forgot that there were details in the rush to get started.
    7 Sep 2010, 04:39 PM Reply Like
  • H. T. Love
    , contributor
    Comments (19538) | Send Message


    Steve Jobs is older than you - maybe he's afraid to turn the site loose on this younger generation. Just think, first you loosen your tie, then ...


    Seriously, I would expect they are going through a learning curve here. This is much more difficult to do right (I would guess) than designing the best user interface.


    Give 'em some time, some feedback (if they permit that) and see what comes out at the end.


    They aren't used to failure, so there's a good chance that they'll recognize the shortcomings and address them.


    As to your article - good job all around. If I were ever interested in a social networking site (haven't ever been, likely will never be), your article touched on several things that are of interest to a person like me.


    Thanks for taking the time and letting us know about it.


    8 Sep 2010, 04:28 PM Reply Like
  • tripleblack
    , contributor
    Comments (13581) | Send Message
    As an old (ok, "ancient") Apple fan, I tend to give them a while to get their act together on "new". Sure, sometimes they get the new thing all glued together and funcitoning right from the get-go, but usually, it takes patience.


    I suspect that Ping will be one of the "patience required" items, if it survives at all.


    The recent success of the IPad was something which came as a welcome surprise to some of us who sampled Apple's initial stab (Newton, dead many years now). IPad succeeded at least partly because of that earlier failure.


    SInce I am more a crusty iconoclast than a social butterly (digital or otherwise), the many quibbles and constraints of the new Ping would probably go un-noticed by me anyway. But Apple is, of course, also a huge investment topic. In that area, my researcher genes awaken, and I become interested - and for that sort of info, I turn to my old buddies at MacWorld:




    I give Ping at 50/50 chance of surviving the usual Apple "toss it into the pool and see if it floats" method of evaluating new ideas. It could soon be drifting among the debris near the drain, given the harsh Darwinian environment of virtual society today.
    8 Sep 2010, 04:43 PM Reply Like
  • optionsgirl
    , contributor
    Comments (5202) | Send Message
    DM I thought your instablog was more entertaining and better written than the article that Triple posted from macworld! Good job. You don't look 40 something!
    8 Sep 2010, 05:56 PM Reply Like
  • Dialectical Materialist
    , contributor
    Comments (5080) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Wow, thanks. I don't know which is the bigger compliment. You get 10 thumbs up!


    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting.
    8 Sep 2010, 11:58 PM Reply Like
  • ipaduser
    , contributor
    Comments (751) | Send Message
    Like the way you write.
    15 Jun 2012, 04:44 PM Reply Like
  • Dialectical Materialist
    , contributor
    Comments (5080) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Thanks very much. That is nice to hear.


    A lot has changed since I wrote that blog. Apple now sells Beatles songs, Ping is widely reported to be on its deathbed, and Apple's market cap, which I described as "astounding" has more than doubled!


    It's too bad about Ping, though. They never touched it after their initial fail.
    15 Jun 2012, 05:11 PM Reply Like
  • ipaduser
    , contributor
    Comments (751) | Send Message
    Right. But you can't hit em all outa the park.
    Not a social networker myself so don't really understand the space.
    Relatively new to tech investing at all, trying to learn from those more knowledgable.
    Interesting to see what MSFT can do in the tablet space, as of today's announcement.
    Not selling my Apple shares just yet...
    18 Jun 2012, 10:38 PM Reply Like
  • Dialectical Materialist
    , contributor
    Comments (5080) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » I read the new version of iTunes won't have Ping, so it will just die.


    I think the "Surface" is interesting. I have always thought it was an interesting (and very Microsoft) strategy to make the same OS work across all devices (more or less -- you'd have RT and Pro, but the basic OS would be the same). If I had to bet money I'd bet that this causes some bad performance tradeoffs that will be exposed over time.


    The tablet they announced looked very competitive (and I think the cover/keyboard is a real interesting if non tablet idea). But we don't know anything about price yet (besides "comparable") and we don't know other things like battery life.


    I think Android tablets will really suffer with the entry of Microsoft into the space. On the other hand I think Apple still has a huge lead in existing footprint and in profitability in this space. The Surface Pro is going to be made available just around the time for the next iteration of the iPad and will only have an HD display.


    Microsoft will undoubtedly sell some tablets and maybe even make some converts, but I wouldn't be shaking in my boots just yet if I were Apple.
    18 Jun 2012, 10:49 PM Reply Like
  • ipaduser
    , contributor
    Comments (751) | Send Message
    It is hard to believe MSFT (or anyone else) could knock AAPL off its pedestal anytime soon in tablets (or in general). Key to this is that once people switch to Apple they usually stay.
    On the other hand maintaining the lead is a different kettle of fish
    than gaining the lead.
    19 Jun 2012, 11:50 AM Reply Like
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