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Welcome to the social, Apple

The Ping social-music feature in iTunes 10 is what Microsoft imagined when it launched the Zune with one critical difference: an addressable user base of more than 100 million.

Apple's music event

Here's a brief rundown of Wednesday's press event.

iOS 4.1
Free update for iPhone, iPod Touch coming next week

New iPods
A complete refresh of iPod lineup

New iTunes 10 with social-networking music features

Apple TV
New, smaller cloud-based Apple TV

For more details, read our summary post here.

I followed Apple's music event keynote live on my MacBook and as CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated the upcoming Ping social-networking service for iTunes 10, I had a strange sense of deja vu. Ping lets iTunes users connect to friends, share their now-playing lists publicly, and make recommendations. It's built into the iTunes desktop client software and accessible from mobile devices as well.

Where have I heard this before? Let's see, iLike was kind of a social network. The Rdio subscription service has a social-networking element. But I'm thinking earlier than that. MySpace? No, that was more about general social-networking and occasional links back to your best friend's band's page.

Then it hit me: Zune. Microsoft launched the first Zune device in November 2006 with a tag line of "Welcome to the Social" and an online social network that let you connect to friends, see their currently playing songs, and make recommendations. It took a while for Microsoft to bring the social service into the devices themselves, but if you were to buy a Zune HD today, you'd get many of the same features that Apple's touting with Ping.

And there's the rub--who's buying a Zune HD today? Social networks only work if there's a decent chance that your friends are on them. Apple's Ping service will have an addressable user base of more than 100 million at its launch later today, while Microsoft never sold enough Zunes to make the social features worthwhile. This move by Apple ensures that even if Windows Phone 7 (which has Zune HD features built into it) surpasses everybody's wildest expectations and sells, say, 10 million units in the first quarter on sale, it still won't hold a candle to the potential user base for Ping. Game, set, and match.

Zune HD image
See that 'Social' tab on the Zune HD? Neither did anybody else. Being first with an idea doesn't guarantee success. Microsoft

In the past, Microsoft has often "validated" markets and ideas that others have created first. It must be uncommonly bittersweet to be on the receiving end this time.

As a side note--not related to music--I couldn't help notice how the new Game Center feature being added to the iPhone closely resembles Xbox Live, with head-to-head multiplayer gaming, matchmaking, and achievements, for instance. This looks like a preemptive strike against Windows Phone 7 with its built-in connectivity to Xbox Live. It's somewhat remarkable that Apple's taking Microsoft's mobile launch so seriously, but with a rumored marketing budget of $500 million, I suppose it has to.