Regular readers will know that I’ve been calling for Apple to up its music service game for a few years now.  If the iTunes music experience had been upgraded as frequently as the iPod range has been then we’d be looking at Apple as being the driving force in digital music that it was in the early years of the iTunes store.  Instead Tunes has trodden water, squeezing the momentum out of what should be a dynamic digital music market.

Apple has never been in the business of selling music for its own sake.  Apple sells music (apps, movies and the rest) to help sell devices.  iTunes music sales are an artifact of iPod, iPhone and iPad sales, little more than monetized CRM. 

So it was always most likely that Apple’s next step in digital music was always going to focus on enhancing the music device experience first and foremost.  And so the stage is prepared for Ping, positioned as ‘a social network for music’. It is in actual fact music discovery functionality built into iTunes.  Steve Jobs cited the 160 million iTunes accounts as a rich addressable market for the ‘social network’.  At risk of sounding over cynical this sounds very similar to Microsoft and Yahoo citing their massive installed bases of email users as a social network simply waiting to be connected.  Similarly Nokia with their handset customers.  Apple now appears to be joining the ranks of multinational companies who mistake large installed bases of engaged customers as a dormant social network.

But leaving cynicism aside for a moment, the Ping approach has a lot of value.  Discovery is the one major element of the digital music journey which Apple don’t yet play in strongly. (See our 360 Degree Music Experiences report for more on the digital music journey) . This social functionality (which looks like the best of MySpace , Last.FM, Twitter and Facebook) will be a valuable way of driving music discovery.  But it needs more.  My guess is that within 12 months we’ll see this upgraded with the resultant social data combined with Genius data to create a robust crowd sourced discovery tool.

From a music perspective the announcement today fell far short of expectations, or rather hopes.  What I want to see Apple do during the next 12 months are:

  1. Work with app partners and record labels to develop new, richly interactive music products that are embedded deep in the DNA of the iPad and the iPad mini
  2. Build a robust cloud based music offering that seamlessly connects all Apple devices (a la Amazon’s Whisper sync) but that also coexists with the best of the rest of the digital music ecosystem
  3. Create iPod, iPad and iPhone music bundles that give the customer a year’s worth of unlimited music (or failing that, liberally metered access)