The last time I went to the front page of the iTunes Store, I was shocked to discover that I didn't recognize a single one of the bands. Uh-oh. Have I aged out of the popular music business? It sure feels like a vast wasteland. I'm going to need some help. To find music I like, I need to find lots of like-minded friends of a certain age who enjoy the same kind of music I do. The newly-released iTunes 10 promises to finally make that happen with Ping. It's like Facebook and Twitter, but with music.
Before we get into the specifics of Ping, let's take a quick look around iTunes 10, the application for Mac and PC that helps you buy music, videos and other stuff from Apple and then loads it onto your precious Apple device. There's an attractive new way to look at your music in list form with album art situated alongside. And look at that! Most of the iTunes interface is spruced up, with new icons along the left side. I've also noticed a slight improvement to its notoriously sluggish response that still plagues it even on the fastest PC.
Ping works either inside the iTunes Mac or PC application, or soon on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Setting up your Ping account is a lot like starting up a Facebook account — it shows up as a tab in iTunes 10, where you can add your picture, find your friends and choose your favorite musicians. With a single click (or tap), Apple says you can get close to those bands, and "become part of their inner circle." Hey, will this be like an invitation to Lady Gaga's dressing room? Hardly, unless being a part of a group of tens of thousands of fans feels like an inner circle to you.
As soon as you find your friends — no easy feat because of the sparsely populated system at this early date — you can see the music they like. When you click on the musical groups you're following, you'll see comments made by the artists. For example, Lady Gaga has already written a few paragraphs. Unfortunately, the Beatles haven't had anything to say yet. There are areas where you can make comments about a band, find out where they're playing, which of your friends plan to attend, and even buy concert tickets.
At first, I thought Ping was going to be like the Microsoft Zune music service when it first started, where you could actually send a song to friend, or receive songs from your friends, and then play those songs a few times before they "expired," mysteriously erasing themselves from your device. No such luck with Ping, where you only get to hear 30 seconds' worth of your friends' songs, previews you've always been able to hear on iTunes. Hey, wait a second. Now I get it. The object of Ping is to sell more songs on iTunes, not to help you. Come on, Apple, why so stingy?
Apple says you'll be able to find friends by linking up your Ping account to your Facebook account, but that's not implemented yet. According to Kara Swisher of website All Things Digital, there's trouble between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Facebook, with Jobs claiming that Facebook wanted "onerous terms that we could not agree to." This is a big problem. If you're already a member of Facebook, it would be easy to find lots of friends for Ping, simply importing your friends through an easy Facebook Connect application. Unless Jobs works this out, Ping will be hobbled.
Like Facebook, any network is only as strong as the number of people using it. And so far, Ping is so new that there are relatively few users. It feels like a vast auditorium an hour before the concert is to begin. There are only a few people here. The key to the success of Ping lies in how Apple is going to control the behavior of its users. So far, I saw some spam in the few comments that are on the system. But it's only the first day, so we'll have to see how that goes.
Will I still feel lost when I visit the iTunes Store? As soon as some of my other friends my age join up with Ping, I'll be able to mine their music collections, and that might help me discover a few musical gems. Ping is no Facebook killer, but as soon as a critical mass of users join its network, it could become a useful tool. But it's going to develop slowly unless Facebook and Apple come to some sort of agreeable terms. Until then, Ping looks like something that will benefit Apple more than you.
You can download the free iTunes 10 here, or if you already have iTunes installed, it will automatically offer you an update.