What if Twitter Locks Out Third-Party Apps?

A recent announcement from Twitter highlights the fact that the company is seeking to make more money from its service. This is certainly not a surprise; Twitter is widely used, yet there is little advertising, other than sponsored tweets and accounts, and the company needs to monetize its user base. But developers are worrying about Twitter restricting use of its API, and whether this will lead to a “closed garden” approach.

Twitter sees some 400 million tweets posted every day, and the company initially let anyone who wanted work with this data. Developers of third-party Twitter applications take advantage of this openness to offer features that Twitter itself does not. But if Twitter starts rolling out ads that get piped into these applications, how will users react?

The problem with Twitter is that its simplicity is what prevents it from making money. The company could insert plenty of ads on its own website, but they would only reach users who interact with Twitter via its website; those who use third-party clients wouldn’t see anything, and wouldn’t generate any income.

Twitter’s being a one-trick pony may lead to long-term problems. There is no doubt that this is a popular platform, but part of what has ensured its popularity is the ecosystem of third-party applications that allow users to choose how they want to tweet and read tweets. For Twitter to make money, they have two choices: drown users in ads, or expand their service. If they do the former, they may lose users, and another company might try to create a similar service. If they do the latter, they may dilute their brand.

I find Twitter to be useful, for several reasons. It allows me to stay in touch with friends and co-workers, and serves as a kind of digital water-cooler. It also allows me to get information from companies that interest me. And, finally, it allows me to share information that interests me, including articles like this, to my followers. But if suddenly my timeline – even in a third-party application – were to be drowned in ads, I don’t know if I’d continue using it. Twitter has certainly become a habit, but Facebook used to be a habit as well, and I don’t visit their website much any more.

Twitter is in a tough spot, and needs to figure out how to move into the future. They run the risk of alienating much of their user base, losing users, and devaluing the brand. Monetizing a service like Twitter is not simple, and I hope those making these decisions do the right thing for their users. Because, after all, without these users, the company has nothing.

By the way, if you don’t follow me on Twitter, maybe you should.

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Facebook Wants Way Too Much Information

I was interested to see that Facebook has released a WordPress plugin. This would allow me to easily share content from this blog to my Facebook page.

I installed the plugin, and went to configure it, and, after creating an “app” on Facebook, saw the following:

Seriously? My mobile phone number? MY CREDIT CARD? WTF? Facebook, do you really think I’m giving you my credit card number?

Needless to say, I have deleted the plugin.

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Apple’s Ping: Anatomy of a Failure

We’ve become used to Apple’s successes in recent years, so a failure of the level of Ping comes as a bit of a surprise. Of course, those of us who write about Macs and Apple products remember many failures in the company’s past: from the Newton (ahead of its times) to the Cube, by way of various iterations of online services, such as iTools, .Mac, and MobileMe.

Tim Cook recently made it clear that Ping was not successful, and reports circulating today suggest that Ping will not be visible in OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, which will be released in July. I think it’s safe to assume that Ping is dead, or will be in a month or two; either with the launch of Mountain Lion, or with iOS 6, to be released in the fall. (It’s worth noting that Ping, as part of iTunes, does not require an update to be killed. The iTunes Store is just HTML pages, like web pages, and Apple can pull the plug at any time.)

Ping is in interesting failure, however, because it showed a disregard for all that was logical. From the very beginning, I was hesitant about Ping. One issue I highlighted was the fact that users could only post about music sold by the iTunes Store. While this is the majority of music out there, it is still a limit that meant that this was a marketing tool, not a real social network tool. The lack of a Facebook link, which reportedly failed at the last minute, was another issue.

My Macworld colleague Chris Breen recently wrote about why he thought Ping failed, but I think both he, in that article, and I, in my article just after launch, missed the real reason. Ping was designed to be nothing more than a marketing tool, and it was wrapped within a proprietary application: iTunes on the Mac and iOS. Because of this, when users wanted to interact with others on Ping, they had to use these applications. They couldn’t access them via a web browser, which, in turn, meant they had to “visit a store” to do anything.

Facebook works well because it is a website (though you can access it on iOS via an app). Twitter, because of its limits, works through third-party apps, but is also accessible on the web (and was originally designed as a web-based tool). But Ping was designed to make sure that anything you said was presented within the frame of the iTunes Store. If Ping had been accessible via a web page, and people could access it from a bookmark, perhaps it would have been more popular. By wanting to sell too much and too hard, Apple killed what might have been a good idea.

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Will Apple (Finally) Kill Ping?

Tim Cook had a conversation yesterday at the All Things Digital conference, where he discussed Macs, iPads, and a number of other subjects. One comment he made was about Ping:

We tried Ping and the customer voted and said, this isn’t something I want to put a lot of energy into. Some customers love it, but there’s not a huge number that do, so will we kill it? I don’t know. I’ll look at it.

I guess I should say “it’s about time.” I’ve never been a big fan of Ping, and I said so when I wrote a hands on article for Macworld about the feature when it was introduced in September, 2010. I concluded my article by saying:

Ping might be successful in the long run, but limiting what users can say to comments about music sold on the iTunes Store could be Apple’s social networking Waterloo. While there’s plenty to talk about, users won’t be able to bring up bands that aren’t sold by Apple. I’m sure Apple has a plan, but so far, users seem to be greeting Ping with a big shrug. I know I have.

Surprisingly, Apple had no plan. Since Ping was introduced, the company hasn’t changed anything of note, just letting it coast from its initial flawed implementation.

It’s rare that Apple introduces something as big as Ping and overall reactions are so negative. I don’t know anyone who has used Ping for more than the first few weeks, and most of those people were fellow journalists who were using it to write about it.

More recently, in an article Seven ways to improve the iTunes Store, I said:

7. Get rid of Ping
I don’t know anyone who thinks Ping was a good idea. And Apple’s attempts to improve it haven’t really been much of an improvement at all. Let it go, Apple, Ping ain’t working.

Frankly, I don’t want to see the iTunes Store end up like Facebook pages, with all sorts of posts, but if Apple wants to make a way for people to share what they like – and not just music, but also apps, movies and TV shows – they need to introduce a system that isn’t so closed. You already can share things on Facebook and Twitter, by clicking on the arrow icon below any item. Yet I don’t see a lot of people doing this either.

If Apple wants to drive traffic via social network sharing to the iTunes Store, they need to figure out a better way. They need to find a way to motivate customers to share these things.

No matter what, it’s time to bury Ping and move on.

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Why Spotify Sucks for Classical Music

Spotify, just released as an invitation-only service in the US, has been around in Europe for a while. I wrote about it for Macworld back in 2009, and here on Kirkville in November 2010 (and just updated the latter).

I’d been thinking about subscribing to Spotify earlier this week, before they announced US availability, and I took the leap today and spent my first €5 to try it out for a month. I’d tried the free ad-infested version before, and I’ve had some gripes, as I wrote about before. But, even without ads, I realized that Spotify sucks for classical music.

One may claim that the Spotify model is not designed for classical music. Nevertheless, there is a lot of classical music available. So you’d think that the Spotify people might consider this group of listeners, and try and offer a service that they would like. Here are the main reasons why Spotify sucks for classical music (some of which apply to Spotify in general).

  1. No gapless playback. I hadn’t noticed this in my tests, in part because I chose to listen to works that didn’t require it, and in part because of the overly loud ads that came in every few minutes. While there are many classical works that you can listen to with gaps, you simply cannot listen to a large number of works – such as most operas, or anything that is composed with movements that have no breaks – without gapless playback.
  2. Search sucks. I’ve written about Spotify’s sucky search before. Andres Sehr of Spotify replied in the comments to that article, saying that:

    Rather then automate discovery we’ve worked hard on making music more social, ensuring that you can see and share all your playlists with friends (via our Facebook connection in particular) and discover new music socially through twitter, blogs, etc.

    Well, this really doesn’t work that well for classical music.

    Here’s an example of why search really sucks. In the screen shot below, you can see that I searched for Alfred Brendel. There’s an elipsis (…) at the end showing that there’s more. Yet the only way to see more is to click on the artist’s name.

    This works for a single artist, but if you want to search for something broader, say, “Schubert lieder,” you’ll have to look at the list that displays below. And that list is designed for searching for songs, not albums or works. Naturally, there are several albums entitled Schubert: Lieder, and they’re all mixed together, not even separated by artist. There’s not even an album view for searches, such as you see on the iTunes Store.

    Wait, there’s more. The search results list only shows you some of the results. You can scroll down, and some more will be added, but there seems to be a limit of a few hundred tracks. Search for “label:haenssler bach.” I happen to know that Haenssler’s complete Bach set is available on Spotify. But the results from the search suck. First, you don’t get much. Next, if you want to add more results, you scroll down, and only get 5 more tracks each time you scroll. Then, if you want to sort by, say, album, you won’t get any more results at all. (Searches sort by popularity, so you can’t easily see tracks on the same album grouped together. If you want to search by artist or album, clicking a column header stops the search, so you only see what’s been loaded before you clicked.)

    How hard can it be to make an advanced search window where users can search for different tags? How hard to make an interface which displays albums, if a user so desires? It seems that Spotify just isn’t interested in a clientele that wants to search for more than the latest hit.

    It’s worth noting that one Spotify user has created a search tool on their website that returns albums, and the Spotify Classical Playlists website published extensive playlists of large collections of classical music. Users can click on them and load them directly in the Spotify client.

  3. No list of new releases. Many classical music fans would like to see what’s new. I know I would.

    To be fair, looking through the latest issue of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, at its “Editor’s Choice” list, I did find about half the albums listed, but in most cases had to search for the composer and artist, rather than the album name, in order to find them. Nevertheless, this means that half of those albums are not available (or simply don’t come up in a search). And it seems that the major labels are better represented than the indies. I’m pretty sure that when I first tried out Spotify back in 2009 there were many discs from labels such as Bis and Harmonia Mundi. Now, there are only a handful from Bis, and just one from Harmonia Mundi. Hyperion Records is notably absent from Spotify as well.

  4. No liner notes. No information at all about the music. Nothing other than “song,” artist, album and time.
  5. View settings aren’t persistent. If I display or play an album, and I increase the width of the columns to better be able to read the name of the track, album or artist, then click on something else, when I come back, the column widths are not saved. Unfortunately, many classical works have long names, or have lists of artists that are more than about 20 characters.
  6. The interface itself sucks. As I wrote in my earlier post, it’s white text on a gray background, and as pixels on monitors get smaller, the font gets harder to read. I understand that Spotify is targeting a younger demographic, but those with poor eyesight will find it annoying to read on this ugly interface. Here’s what it looks like:

  7. No Composer column. You can see Artist, Album, Track and Time, but not composer. Since only some labels include the composer’s name in the Album or Track tag, if you’re looking at a playlist that someone else has created, you may simply not know who the music is by.

So there are many reasons why Spotify sucks for classical music. But the two deal-breakers are non-gapless playback and really, truly, honestly bad searching. I simply don’t buy the argument that it’s designed so you can discover new music via social networks. I want to be able to find what’s there, among their 15 million or so tracks. If Spotify, by not providing a good search tool, is saying that they don’t want my money, well, perhaps they won’t get it for long.

On the other hand, they’ve got a heck of a lot of Grateful Dead, including all 36 live Dick’s Picks recordings. A lot depends on your definition of the word “classical.”

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New in iTunes 10.1: Disable Ping

You asked for it, you got it.

Finally! For all the Pingophobes, iTunes 10.1, just released, lets you disable Ping and remove it from the iTunes sidebar. There are two ways to do this.

Go to the General preferences and uncheck the Ping box:

Or go to the Parental preferences, and check the Ping box:

Thank you, Apple. We can now ignore Ping if we choose.

Now, if we could only get some color back in that sidebar…

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Ping and Twitter? Seriously?

Apple’s Ping, which is the “musical social network” grafted onto the iTunes Store, has been limping along since its introduction. So any way of getting it out of its fortress could help Apple to make people realize that Ping exists, and potentially sell more music. Apple and Twitter have announced an integration of the two services, whereby Ping users can link their Ping accounts with their Twitter accounts, leading to a potential tsunami of unwanted tweets, and a flood of unfollows on Twitter.

My Macworld colleague Chris Breen asks if this is an invitation to annoy, and I agree with most of his points. The main error in this integration is that Ping tweets are not selective. Everything you buy will lead to a tweet, even those free songs you download just for the heck of it. (Of course, this information displays in your friends’ Ping updates, but that’s where it should be.) Every time you like a song or album, a tweet will be sent out with its URL. Chris points out that you can, of course, choose to tweet about an individual item, even if you don’t link your accounts, and I feel that things should remain like this. Perhaps Apple could add a checkbox when you like or post about something via Ping, offering to tweet it as well, but making it an all-or-nothing option shows that Apple clearly does not understand social networking.

This said, perhaps those of us who write about technology don’t understand it either. I’ve only been using Twitter for a few months, and do it mostly to stay in touch with my Mac journalist colleagues, tweeting only about things I write about: Macs, iTunes, iPods, books, music, and little more. (And, of course, inviting readers to follow my tweets.) Sure, some of the people I follow tweet about sports, often, and I wish I could filter those tweets; it was especially annoying during the World Series, as many of my Twitter friends are in San Francisco. But that’s not such a big deal; I can skim over them. If their Ping activity were tweeted, though, it would be an annoyance; not insurmountable, though, because most of them don’t do much on Ping.

Maybe the target demographic – younger people – want this kind of info. Maybe there are some people out there who really use Ping a lot (I haven’t been able to find them – if you’re one, please post in the comments). My experience with Ping suggests that most people are ignoring it, or they’re simply not buying much on the iTunes Store.

In any case, Apple’s all-or-nothing approach is a mistake. Users will find that the annoyance of this link is not worth the trouble to their followers. The same will be true with Facebook, if Apple creates a similar sort of link. Facebook is a bit different, and perhaps people would see it as less of an intrusion. But intrusion it is. While automating such things ensures their dispersal to the masses, it also annoys. Without automation, many people will forget. And there’s the rub: if they forget to share the info, maybe your system really isn’t compelling enough.

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Ping: The Basement of the iTunes Store

Since Apple introduced Ping, I have commented on the service, pointing out what’s there and what’s not, and I made some suggestions as to how Apple could make Ping a success. But it seems like Ping is not doing too well, given that Apple’s been sending e-mails reminding users of its features, even after Apple added visible Ping buttons to your iTunes music library.

So, with all this, I’ve been asking around, and looking at the profiles of those people I follow, to see if Ping is catching on. Sure, I see every purchase my friends make from the iTunes Store; that’s automatic. But aside from that, most of the people I know don’t use Ping. When I queried a number of them, they all said that they basically forgot about it. A few post comments on songs or albums, but it seems that, from my limited inquiries, Ping is getting a big shrug.

To be fair, I and my friends may not be the Ping demographic. While many of the people I follow are near my age group (verging on “old”), there are quite a few in their 20s who I follow, and they, too, seem pretty Ping-inactive.

Not only do people not seem to be using it much, but when I went to look at Ping today, I looked at the artists that Apple recommends I follow. The first five have between zero and three followers; when I clicked though to the list, the majority of the artists listed were below ten followers. Either popular artists aren’t creating profiles, or Apple’s recommendation engine is off the tracks. Because none of these artists have anything to do with music I’m interested in, and in the full list, there’s only a handful that I’ve heard of. Given that Apple has my purchase history from the iTunes Store, and that none of the artists whose music I’ve purchased shows up in this list, I have to assume that they’re simply not interested in Ping. (And this includes a number of well-known artists, in some cases for music purchased for my son, whose tastes are very different from mine.)

Then there’s the list of people that Apple suggests I follow. I keep seeing the same list, over and over. I can’t click a button to remove the people I don’t want to follow (people I don’t know) from the list. And I don’t see any new ones being added over time. Obviously, these are all friends of friends, but since I don’t know them, I’d like to scratch them off the list. No can do.

Again, all of the above is purely anecdotic, and may not represent the experiences of others. But from what I’ve read on the internet, my experience is not unique. Ping is being ignored, and dust is starting to accumulate. It seems like it is becoming like that basement that you furnished but that no one wanted to use as a rec room, and which is being forgotten.

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