Ping and Steve JobsIs iTunes Ping, the latest in music-based social media, nothing more than an excuse by Apple to get students to spend more?

In September, Apple announced iTunes Ping -- a new social media network for people who like music. It's an experiment similar to Lala.com, the music store website that was purchased (and subsequently shut down) by Apple. You can see what music your friends like, recommend music to your circle, and listen to previews of songs. Unlike Lala, however, Apple still doesn't give users the option to stream a song in its entirety once for free.

This begs the question -- is there a music-based social network that works on a college student's budget? The services are free, but all except Last.fm.com try to get users to buy music. But since the prices are the same, it's the features of the different sites that make them stand out. Let's take a look at the major players and what the pros and cons are, starting with the new guy.

Ping
The idea behind Ping is simple: Utilize the contents of the iTunes Store for artists and us common people to share. It's pretty straightforward -- you can share songs, albums, and videos from the iTunes Store. But as I mentioned above, it's just the normal 30 seconds of each song. In order to listen to the full song, of course, you'll have to pay 99 cents or $1.29. Even though MySpace is nearly extinct, at least it allows for users to stream entire songs. And it's not the most user-friendly system.

No friend finding feature: Unlike Facebook and Buzz, there's no built-in feature making it easy to find your friends in Ping. Instead, you have to go in and type a friend's full name to find out whether or not they're on Ping.

Limited artist base: On Ping, you can see what artists are saying -- what bands they're listening to, pictures from their tour, videos, etc. But the base of artists is pretty bare. Where on other social networks, unknown bands have a chance to get some attention through self-promotion, Ping is all about connecting you with the behemoths of music: U2, Paul McCartney, Weezer, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, etc. Sure, there are some indie bands in there, but even groups like The xx and Yeasayer have been playing festivals and winning awards.

It's locked inside iTunes: The beauty of social media is that it makes linking easy. But since Ping is locked inside iTunes 10, it makes linking to other websites and communication between other forms of social media and other websites much harder. Because of iTunes' functionality, you can't even copy and paste links shared by, say, Paul McCartney. That's part of why more open-source social networks like Twitter have grown to be successful-- linking out is key. It's clear that the primary function of Ping is to sell songs on iTunes, not to become one of the leading social networks.

The positives about Ping? It keeps you up to date with your favorite artists and, if your friends are on Ping, you can see what they've been purchasing on iTunes. You can also share your tastes with friends, which is always a fun practice.

Last.fm
Last.fm does one thing really well: It lets everybody know what you're listening to (unless you only listen to vinyl and 8-tracks). The network offers an app that "scrobbles" what you listen to on iTunes and mp3 player. But in a way, Ping does have a leg up on Last.fm in that it offers at least 30 second previews of a wealth of songs. Last.fm does stream some songs, but it's a limited base of music. So ultimately, Last.fm's strength is its ability to share your taste in music.

iLike
For people who love playing music trivia, iLike is the way to go -- you can just sit for hours and guess which Shakira song you're listening to. The site is run by MySpace Music and supported by Facebook, so it's a social network that's embedded into already successful social media. Plus, iLike keeps track of things on a local level, letting you know what concerts are going on in your area and keeping you up to date for when your favorite artists come to town. They also have a surprisingly vast database of artists, which gives them a definite leg up on Ping, and they have a lot of audio previews for songs.Songs are sold for 99 cents or $1.29, and links are offered to iTunes.

Spotify
The tragic thing about Spotify? It isn't in America. It's a UK-based system where users can stream music and share with friends. But rumor has it it'll be coming to the States before the year is over. Finding friends on Spotify is easy -- the free site connects with Facebook and Twitter to find your circle. You can stream music, buy it, share it, and even load your existing mp3 collection onto Spotify, which you can access through any computer and most mobile phones. Here's hoping the rumors are true-- it'd be nice to finally combine music streaming with a solid social network.

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