The Case for an Apple iNetwork: Welcome to the Social

27 Aug
Muhammad Saleem via ReadWriteWeb shared by 4 people

There has been a lot of speculation recently about an impending update to iTunes. Version 8.0, among other things, is supposed to finally bring a recommendation engine to the digital media player application. While that's interesting from a music discovery perspective, it is even more interesting to consider what this could mean in terms of an iTunes+iPhone based social networking experience.

iTunes (launched 2001) and the iTunes music store (launched 2003) have come a long way since they were first launched. The application has gone through various iterations, gaining significant features such as podcasts (2005), videos (2007), games, and applications (2008) along the way. In the process, selling billions of songs, millions of movies, and over 10 million applications in the first week of the app store's launch. Needless to say Apple has built an experience that with all it's parts combined is unparalleled in both its features and the breadth of its catalog of content.

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The Software Side

While most of that is common knowledge, what most people overlook is the glaring lack of any community aspect to iTunes. There are millions of people, many of them with similar tastes, flocking to the same destination every day, yet they never interact with each other... because they can't. If Kevin Rose is to be believed, however, (as discussed on TWiT 157) that all is about to change with iTunes 8.0.

He says, '... the one thing I hear about iTunes 8.0 is that it's gonna do something along the lines of, um, looking at your music, and, uh, kind of recommendations based on certain things.' In other words, the next version of iTunes will monitor your media purchasing and consuming habits and correlate them with everyone else using the system to figure out which songs you will probably like but haven't bought/listened to. If you're a fan of collaborative filtering systems or internet radio (Pandora,, etc), you're probably familiar with the idea already and that iTunes may be considering implementing this doesn't come as a surprise (I found myself wondering why this wasn't introduced 2-3 years ago).

While this feature itself isn't social and can be implemented entirely on the back end, the implementation required for that functionality is so close to a networked experience (monitoring of habits and correlation across users) that they might as well take a small next step and add a visible social layer with which those users can interact. In fact, if you look at the results from a 2006 iTunes survey, you will see the people want to be able to see what people with similar interests and tastes (i.e. friends) are purchasing and consuming, so they can experiment with and pick from the same selection. More specifically, consumers want:

  1. The ability to view a friend's wish list, with permission.
  2. The ability to view what a friend is currently listening to, with permission.
  3. The ability to view a friend's playlist, with permission.
  4. The ability to view a friend's recent purchases, with permission.
  5. The ability to view a friend's favorite artists, with permission

What's also interesting about this approach is that it reaches the exact opposite conclusions of EMR's UK social networking study [PDF]. The study implies that social networks will be the content distribution channels of tomorrow, but the relationship may actually work better in the other direction. With the addition of networking and recommendation features to iTunes, the application could become the most efficient, most engaging, stickiest (always-on), and most profitable social network almost overnight.

But Apple's social networking potential doesn't end there. Remember Microsoft's 'welcome to the social' campaign that centered around the launch of its Zune digital media player? If you don't, you're not alone. The goal behind the campaign, 'to create a shared, social experience that will be shaped by the collective imagination of consumers and will inspire discovery of new music and artists,' was actually a formidable one. Unfortunately an inferior device, coupled with disasterous software integration made the campaign a $100 million failure.

Enter Apple.

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The Hardware Side

With a formidable install base, great hardware and one of the most versatile mobile operating systems around, the iPhone is ready to herald in the future of mobile social networking. Furthermore, with 3G/EDGE/WiFi/GPS capabilities, the iPhone is a great tool for both networking as well as wirelessly sharing digital media like the Zune promised (but failed miserably at). Not only does the device work seamlessly with the iTunes software, but Apple's DRM is more consistent and perhaps more forgiving that Microsoft's (which was partly responsible for crippling the Zune's ambitions).

The Cloud

With a firm grasp on the software side with iTunes and on the hardware side with the iPhone, Apple is in good shape. Their killer app, however, could end up being the cloud. Apple already operates MobileMe (previously .Mac) which faciliates the management of contacts, calendars (events), email, photos, and any other files or digital media. Admittedly the service has been an utter failure since launch, but Apple has acknowledge the failure and is on the path to fix its shortcomings.

The previously discussed iTunes social networking and collaborative filtering (recommendations) system, coupled with the iPhone's versatile wireless communication and media sharing capabilities, topped off with media and information management (and sharing) in the cloud, the combo is no doubt ready to be our digital life (and relationship) manager. The only limitation of the network, however, (and it will be a deal breaker for many) is that unlike every other social network today, the experience will come at a steep cost. Knowing Apple though, I have no doubt it will be an experience worth the cost (especially considering what they had to deal with at the MobileMe launch).

This is a guest post by Muhammad Saleem, a social media consultant and a top-ranked community member on multiple social news sites. You can follow Muhammad on Twitter.

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