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Apple Shows a Facebook Rival and Apple TV 2.0

Music-focused social network is linked to iTunes, and TV shows will rent for 99 cents.
September 1, 2010

Chatter about Google’s social networking ambitions has been ubiquitous for months, but without warning a different Silicon Valley giant has pitched into competition with Facebook: Apple.

At an event Wednesday in San Francisco, Steve Jobs introduced Ping, which he described as “a social network for music.”

“It’s Facebook and Twitter meet iTunes,” he explained–a line that might not impress if it came from a college dropout pitching a startup idea. Coming from Jobs it’s a little more striking.

Some 120 million iTunes users can opt into the service. It lets people create a profile, based on their music choices, and get updates on their friends’ purchases or reviews of music sold via iTunes. It’s a social network that could be the same size as MySpace at launch, and it easily could pay for itself: Ping users are a click away from spending money at all times. Updates on friends’ purchases on your news feed page feature a “buy” button. Artists also get profile pages and can be followed–a feature with the potential to take away MySpace’s most loyal and valuable user base.

Jobs didn’t take one potentially huge step – to open iTunes up for streaming music. Even so, as is traditional he had “one more thing” to wrap his presentation. Or as he put it, “actually, it’s one more hobby,” raising chuckles from the crowd. That was a reference to a much-mocked past remark about Apple TV, the company’s largely unsuccessful attempt to sell a system that can funnel video content to TVs.

Part of the problem, said Jobs, was that people found synchronizing and configuring the first-generation Apple TV box too much like setting up a computer. “This is a hard one for people in the computer industry to understand, but it’s easy for consumer to understand,” he said, in a none-too-subtle dig at Google TV devices that are set to appear this fall.

Apple’s second attempt will cost $99 whereas the original cost $229. It is also fully a quarter of the size of the first generation and does away with storing TV and movies altogether. Everything is rented and the prices are low: just 99 cents for a TV show. Apple’s most significant achievement might be that it has persuaded some big Hollywood content owners–ABC and Fox–to provide their TV shows such as “Glee” and “Bones” at this price in HD.

As I noted when Google announced its TV ambitions, persuading the owners of top-tier content to play along is the biggest challenge for a computer firm attempting to disrupt entertainment. Jobs acknowledged as much on stage: “This is a big step for the studios to make and not all of them wanted to take this step with us. We think the rest of the studios will see the light and get on board this with us.”

If Apple TV 2.0 is a hit, it seems likely those studios will feel under pressure to do just that. The device will also stream movies from Netflix, another reason cable TV providers will be watching with interest.

The last word went to Coldplay’s Chris Martin, wheeled out to play a few tunes on the piano. “Your marketing people can sell anything,” he remarked, in reference to the way Apple helped the Coldplay song Viva La Vida become a hit (by making it available exclusively through iTunes initially, and then using it in an TV ad) after the band’s label thought the track would be a dud. His point applies to Ping and the new Apple TV; whatever the technical merits or failings of the products, we know they will receive some of the slickest promotion on Earth.

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