Rhodri Marsden: Will Ping change the way we share music?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

Apple supremo Steve Jobs seemed exultant as he launched a new service, Ping. "It's a social network," he gushed, "but all about music." I nodded dutifully, but in the back of my mind I knew it wasn't the innovation he was making it out to be. It was like him unveiling an iEscalator in an Apple Store and saying: "It's like stairs, but – and get this – they move."

We're already swamped with opportunities to share music; the ease of doing so is one cause of the continuing woes within the recorded music industry. If I want to alert someone to the majesty of "Boogie Nights" by Heatwave, there are many ways to do it, none involving spending money; I could direct them to YouTube or my Spotify profile. I could even email it to them, although the copyright police would turn on their sirens if they found out. But while most online music ventures are predicated upon letting us listen for free, Ping revolves around something that for many has become an anachronism: paying for it.

Another service had a similar idea a few months back. mFlow was launched with the tagline "iTunes meets Twitter", but you received credits to spend on music if your friends bought the songs you recommended. It was an intriguing idea – until you realised you were now merely a virtual Avon representative or Tupperware party host, earning commission if your friends bought stuff. (Not that any of mine did.) As someone who – at least in theory – makes part of his living from music, I'm hugely in favour of people paying to be entertained. But I'm not convinced that repeatedly suggesting they do so by displaying a "Buy Now" button, like a spiv smiling while revealing a load of watches pinned to the lining of his coat, is necessarily going to work any more.

It doesn't help that Ping's supposedly unique selling points are implemented more effectively by other services. If I want to see what my friends are listening to on their MP3 players, last.fm has let me do that for years. Ping, by contrast, is about showing me the digital downloads that friends have bought from Apple – hardly an accurate précis of their musical tastes. If I want to see what my friends are specifically recommending, I'll head to Twitter or Facebook to see what music links they've posted – but there's no automated way of finding these friends on Ping; it has to be done by laborious searching via each person's email address. And even when you've found them, you can only listen to 30 seconds of a tune they've recommended before being prompted to spend 79p to hear the rest. Then, if I want to find out information about a band, why follow them on Ping when they're already on Facebook or MySpace? And why consult Ping for concert news, when Songkick already emails me details of gigs by every band in my iTunes library as soon as they're announced?

Apple would probably say, well, Ping conveniently rolls all this kind of thing up into one place – inside your favourite music player. But its purpose, really, is to get us to spend money, and we're not necessarily that keen on doing so. And unless we're persuaded of Ping's merits pretty quickly, we're unlikely (as Google discovered with its Wave and Buzz services) to change our minds, apologise, and sheepishly trudge back.



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Those driven to the brink of violence by malfunctioning gadgets could perhaps forsake the instruction manual and the technical support helpline in favour of divine assistance. Japan's Shinto religion holds that every object has a spiritual essence, and blessings of gizmos are regularly given at the Kanda Shrine in Tokyo – but now there's news that an Anglican priest in Nova Scotia is offering a similar "grace for gadgets" service. Announced to her congregation with a modified Apple poster carrying the legend "iPray", Rev Lisa Vaughan's idea was inspired by the ancient English practice of bringing agricultural equipment to prayers. "It's about, you know, helping us to be the best person we can be in our communications," she said. She also seemed undaunted by the prospect of non-believers turning up with, say, hard disks in urgent need of defragmentation: "Bring 'em on, baby." Advantages? It's free, and service is incredibly friendly. Sadly, it does no more good than wailing at your laptop: "Oh, God, don't crash. Not now. Please." Which is a shame.

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