As part of a series of announcements today at a press event in San Francisco, Apple made clear that it is planning to build its own social networking features. But how big are its social aspirations? The new version of Apple’s iOS software, 4.1, is due out next week, and it will include the Game Center, a social network service designed specifically for mobile games. That’s been in the works for awhile, and is relatively simple — more surprising is Ping, Apple’s new music social network, designed for iTunes.
Both are analogous to other hardware-based services that have been on the market for years, not social networking sites. But it’s easy to wonder where Facebook is in all of this given Apple’s new social focus — that is, besides the subtle Facebook integration into the new music service. Up through last January, Facebook was getting a lot of attention from Apple, appearing as example services during stage presentations, and consistently reaching the top of the iTunes App Store charts. The trend had been building for a while, as we noted last December.
Is Apple looking to build its own social platform now? Aside from a simple integration in Ping, Facebook is absent in these latest launches, as are all other third party social networking services, like Twitter or MySpace. Here’s a closer look at what Apple is launching, what the moves indicate about its plans for the future, and how Faceboook could be an ally or a competitor.
Game Center: Sort of Social
First up is Apple’s Game Center, a new iOS app and API that lets you play games with friends and strangers, and lets developers add integrated social features to their games. Somewhat similar to Xbox Live, or third-party social platforms like Scoreloop, Aurora Feint and Ngmoco’s Plus, it includes basic features like leaderboards and achievements. While Apple didn’t go into much more detail today on how exactly the social features will work, previous reports indicate that the app will let users sign in with their Apple IDs (what you use for iTunes, etc.), create and identify each other by nickname, send person-to-person notifications and a way to “Find Me by Email” — meaning email invites and requests about games, potentially. It also includes a matching service to let find non-friends to play, and to create multiplayer games.
We’re waiting to see just how social the Game Center gets. If Apple can effectively tie in its identity system and invites, it could spur more people to share games with friends, and gain traction. If it’s too hard to use, or doesn’t make identity meaningful and easy, it could just stay a relatively peripheral, contained system like Xbox Live’s social features — and not become a significant new social platform feature for third parties. So far, Apple seems more focused on traditional-style games, as it showed off Epic Games’ new title Project Sword on stage, but nothing else. Previously, though, it has shown off iOS social titles like Zynga’s FarmVille for the iPad.
Apple ID is not currently a comparable service to Facebook, in that there’s no central site interface, network of real-life friends, or set of communication channels along the lines of what Facebook has. For games, Apple seems to be taking a conservative approach to making iOS games more social, not more heavily integrating phone contacts or even Facebook integration, as many iOS games have themselves done while it sees how the concept performs with users.
Ping: More Social, But Still Limited
Even more interesting is previously-rumored Apple’s music social network, Ping. The company framed it as a more music-focused alternative to Facebook and Twitter, in those words. The more direct assault is on MySpace, though, including MySpace Music, and its iLike applications on Facebook. Available for iTunes 10 today, it has all the features of a music social network, reminiscent of third-party social plugins for iTunes that have been out for years, and offered by iLike and others.
Ping is simple, and borrows heavily from popular interface designs. It lets you share and consume a variety of music-related information using the follower-followed model as seen on Twitter and other services. You can follow artists, and see a page of what they’re listening to and sharing, and where they’re playing live venues. Individuals have their own pages, showing what they’re listening to, as well as their reviews of songs, and other activity. And a Recent Activity page shows you the latest from everyone you follow, all in one place — overall, the interface will remind users of Facebook and Twitter.
On the social front, you can Like or Comment on any item, and you can also search for friends on the site, or invite them via email or Facebook. We haven’t gotten a look at the Facebook integration yet, but according to its splash page on the launch, Apple appears to be asking users to share their friends lists with it, then using that information to determine which ones are also using Ping.
Other features include custom charts of albums and songs you might like, and ways to buy. You can listen to 30 second samples of songs, and click to buy them through iTunes, with Apple getting its cut per its relationships with record labels. Third party music discovery services also tend to link digital and CD sales to Amazon and other sites — Apple is effectively closing that loop with Ping, ensuring that it always gets a cut when people find music they want to buy. If you want to buy tickets, and you might, as there will be 17,000 concert lists in the app, Apple will funnel you through Live Nation to complete the process.
Today, CEO Steve Jobs also said that you’ll be able to configure your settings so that you can approve who follows you, promising that “you can get as private or public as you want,” and, in what might have been an allusion to Facebook’s historically complex controls, he added that “the privacy is super simple to set up, anyone can do it.”
Ping, as an app for iTunes, will only available on iTunes desktop clients, and on iPhone and iPod devices. In contrast to most other methods of music discovery, it does not span platforms or include a central web interface. But iTunes still has 160 million users, as Jobs was careful to point out today, so that’s a very large closed market, that is continuing to grow with the proliferation of Apple hardware products around the world.
What Are Apple’s Social Plans?
Ping and the Game Center, announced on the same day, might lead one to the conclusion that Apple is trying to create its own social networking features. And that’s not all — the company has been busy filing a variety of social networking-related patents since the start of this year. One was iGroups, a location-focused real-time messaging service. Another is for a set of mobile contact and social networking syncing features, that happen to prominently feature Facebook.
Many pieces of evidence point to Apple’s own social ambitions. If it one day decides it wants to build a centralized social platform for the web, like what Facebook is in the process of doing and like what Google wants to do, then it has pieces to do so. You can imagine being able to build out your Apple ID, carefully managing your account for various purposes, from gaming to music to enterprise collaboration, and even photos — photo-sharing is a key component of Facebook, and Apple has millions of people already using iPhoto, especially due to its phones.
The concept of tying together different social networking niches is what Google appears to be trying to do now.
However, Apple might just be trying to build its all these services to provide specific value to existing products. No one has built a large, high-quality social graph to rival Facebook’s, to date, although Twitter and Google are trying in their own ways. As Google is showing, figuring out how to create a service that is more than the sum of its parts is about nailing user psychology, not cobbling products.
There are also signs that Apple might be planning to do more with Facebook. For one, Facebook has the single largest app in the App Store. A recent interview with Facebook Effect author David Kirkpatrick has more on that:
It’s so heavily used compared to other apps that I have been told by someone who thought he knew the data — this is highly secret data and I don’t know the actual numbers — that more than half of all usage of the iPhone of apps, other than those provided by the phone itself like telephony and email, is coming from Facebook. And on the iPad, too, it’s just a huge, huge part of usage.
Apple might be envious, but it almost certainly wants to take advantage of what Facebook has already built. The Ping integration today is one small example of that. Another is code pointing to a feature that would allow device owners to more easily upload video to Facebook. And then there’s some more information from Kirkpatrick. “So in a way, Apple and Facebook are joined at the hip, and I think that’s one reason why Zuckerberg and Jobs have been spending time together.”
Zuckerberg and Jobs wouldn’t be spending time together if Zuckerberg thought Jobs was busy plotting a rival service. But they would be spending time together if they were exploring how to partner, with Facebook providing an underlying set of social features and Apple providing hardware and hardware-driven software products.
Given how early and niche-specific Apple’s social networking efforts are, and how prevalent Facebook is in the world and on iOS devices, we still could see a partnership emerging, rather than a rivalry.