Bishop Takes Knight
It didn’t take long to do the math as Steve Jobs unveiled Ping, the social music recommendation engine baked into iTunes 10. In one deft move, Apple brought itself into the social networking market with a near-instant enrollment of up to 160 million. And did you catch that they also have credit cards and a history of trusted purchasing with those members?
You could almost hear the gasp in Palo Alto.
And that’s just the start. Next week is going to be way, way worse for Facebook when Apple opens an entire second front with Game Centre. In the iOS 4.1 update, Game Centre will provide a switchboard for game apps to establish multiplayer sessions. Leader-boards and achievements will provide the start of a more public social dimension which Apple can build out as it pleases. The 120 million iOS devices already out there, growing by 250,000 a day, is a space that Facebook can’t touch and a play that will spark the second great humiliation of Flash.
Facebook games, the Farmvilles, the Mafia Wars, are all Flash-based, meaning they won’t play on iOS devices without being ported to native apps. The recent demonstrations of mobile Flash on devices like the Nexus One, a capable device if a failure in the market, suggest Flash won’t cross the chasm to mobile anytime soon. Without a viable platform for its games in Android and Game Centre introducing a social infrastructure for iOS gaming, Facebook has no chance to gain a meaningful foothold in mobile gaming at this point. It’s stuck on desktop/laptop island, the place that casual and social computing is dwindling.
Ping and Game Centre are odd ducks as social networks as they exist to augment existing experiences. These aren’t places to see what your friends are doing but rather what they’re doing for entertainment. Entertainment that you can also partake in through the stuff Apple sells. These are social sales channels with a direct line to revenue. Evaluating them as social networking sites in the traditional sense misses the point that Apple isn’t hitting Facebook head-on but stealing from it diagonally.
The Big Board
The grand game board that Apple, Facebook and Google are playing on is one of surfaces, the surfaces where interaction takes place. As for Google, well they’re buying up companies but the runway for doing anything coherent with them is looking mighty long, but when they do take flight they’ll have devices to exist on. In the meantime, more Android surfaces is more places to show ads, which is fine by them.
But pity Facebook. By dithering around making recommendations obliquely through ads targeted via a “social graph” rather than direct, real value that people will pay for (like entertainment content), and by betting on Flash, they’ve been shoved aside on the ascendent surfaces of the next decade, where people will be spending their entertainment dollars more and more.