3 Predictions about Apple’s Social Software Future

The upcoming Macworld starts Monday. Here are some thoughts about where Apple might go with social software and hardware. First off, Apple is making a huge social software push. This is indicated not only in the up and coming MacWorld rumors, but in their already-released details of the next release of OS X: Leopard. If […]

The upcoming Macworld starts Monday. Here are some thoughts about where Apple might go with social software and hardware.

First off, Apple is making a huge social software push. This is indicated not only in the up and coming MacWorld rumors, but in their already-released details of the next release of OS X: Leopard. If you’re not familiar with Leopard’s new social features, check out: Apple Making a Huge Social Software Push?

iPhone

The iPhone is the most active and exciting rumor of this year’s Macworld. But it has long been rumored, and never released. Why?

Apple just hasn’t got to the point where they feel they can enable a great experience yet. There are too many uncontrolled variables: carrier technology, calling plans, area coverage, 1 and 2-year contracts, compatibility between carriers, rapidly-changing functionality like camera and music, IP-based telephony, and seamless synchronization between handset, computer, and software (and probably many more). Imagine having to work with monopoly-hungry companies like the telecoms while trying to beat them at the same time! Apple’s “it just works” ideal is a hard fit here.

So what could Apple bring to the mobile phone game?

Many people are excited to think of a phone experience that is as seamless as the music experience enabled by iTunes and the iPod. That’s why I’m excited. Apple has raised our expectations to a really high level here. These expectations include a handset from the Gods: super simple, elegant, and a stylish exterior. More importantly, these expectations include software that is easy to use and “just works”.

But Apple, being a computer company, has more flexibility because it has access to other parts of people’s computing experience than do telecoms. More concretely, if Apple recorded (not necessarily the audio, but the metadata of the call) all the calls we make and store that information in our .Mac account (assuming you’re still subscribed, of course), then lots of other things become possible. You could phone-to-text message, much like is happening at Twittr (not that this is the ideal model, but recording text messages on a web page in a similar way). You could look at call histories, giving a clear picture of our calling habits, how many minutes we’ve used up, and who we’re talking to. You could have chat and blogging built in, as is happening with Leopard to some extent already (see the piece I linked to at the start).

All of this would lead to a “phone profile”, much like a social-networking profile, where we could connect with our friends to do *any* sort of messaging we want. Voice, voice-text, web-text, chat…all in one central location. Of course, to make this valuable to people you would need a way to fill out the profile with personal information so that it replicates offline identity online, having contacts/friends only a link away, giving people motivation to represent themselves with accuracy. This could potentially become the single hub around which we communicate with others. All built around the iPhone, which handles both voice, text and possibly, video messaging. Another way to look at this is to imagine the iPhone as just a device to message with, including but not limited to voice. The big difference being that all of our messages, no matter what form they’re in, where there were sent from, how they were sent, are all located in one, easy to access, place.

Now, I’m glossing over many other super important things that the iPhone has to do right to be a success. Things like seamless integration between Address Book, iCal, iChat, and Mail. All these things need to work together, recognize who are our friends and who aren’t, and make it painless to contact people in one of many different ways, save information and add contacts effortlessly.

iTunes

At some point in the not-so-distant future, the iTunes player and music store will have serious competition, as Microsoft and other competitors figure out successful formulas for selling music online. iTunes, as it currently exists, lacks social features that it desperately needs to face its future competition. Apple doesn’t need to look very far for inspiration: music recommendation engines Last.fm and Pandora both have lots of wonderful social features that help people discover new music. And, for those movically inclined, Netflix kicks a lot of butt in the movie recommendations area. (an Apple/Netflix partnership of some sort would be intriguing).

iTunes currently gives good insight into what’s popular. Users can easily find out what most people are listening to and/or watching. But artistic tastes vary widely, and what’s popular on iTunes is usually what’s hip among the largest group of music and movie buyers: teens and 20-somethings. For people with a more, er, longer view, the popular list isn’t very helpful at all. Instead, they’re more likely to turn to iTunes “related” feature, which suggests other bands and movies based on the one you’re currently looking at.

(added) In addition, iTunes allows for music sharing on local networks. Users can view and play music of folks who are on the same network as them.

What people can’t find out, and what is crucial to music and movie sharing, is knowing what your trusted social groups are listening and watching. iTunes lacks a way for people to know what their friends and family are currently enjoying. This is where most of our recommendations come from. iTunes could benefit greatly from a recommendation service based not only on what people listen to and watch, but also what trusted people are doing.

An integral part of this is to have a representation of friends built into iTunes. Also, you would need a way to scrobble what you’re playing/watching to your iTunes account. Apple sort of does this, of course, with their mini-store, but it’s turned off by default (more here). In addition, it has to add more value than a mini-store, which only tries to sell you more stuff. More importantly, it has to have messaging that says that Apple isn’t using your data for nefarious purposes.

Podcasting

Apple has made significant improvements to pod and video casting over the last couple iterations of its iLife and Quicktime software. The time has come, however, for the process to be painless. Recording podcasts in Garageband is too difficult, with multiple steps needed to record and produce. It should be very little more than a two-step “record, publish” process.

Secondly, Apple has so far pushed podcasts as something akin to radio broadcasts. The podcasting tutorial gives great insight into how to do just that: create an extended, informative show with an intro, an outro, segments, music, etc. But I wonder, isn’t podcasting more than just replicating the radio experience? I know that some of the most compelling audio I’ve heard is just someone talking about something interesting, telling a story, or explaining something difficult. I don’t really care about the “show” as much as the content of a particular episode. Though podcasts grew from the subscription model, it doesn’t mean that everyone needs to have a regular, half-hour show that we listen to on a regular basis. If people have time to produce such a thing, then great! But most of us, even if we went through that process once, have little time to do it right for an extended period of time.

I think podcasting will really take off when it becomes smaller, more discrete, and more social. When we can subscribe to our friend’s podcast and listen to their two-minute message today, not just some deeply-engaging half hour show. This gets back to the messaging idea with iPhone. Messaging doesn’t need to be structured or high-fidelity. There’s a lower-fidelity sweet spot with podcasting…just as there was with YouTube and video.

Wrapup

Well, if I spent any more time writing this Macworld would have been over before I got it published. As such, I didn’t even get to lots of ideas I have about iTV, iWeb, and the other iLife apps, not to mention Leopard Server!. Oh well. If you have any ideas about Apple’s social leanings, let me know in the comments…

Published: January 6th, 2007

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