Let's take a trip back to 1997. Apple's stock prices were in free-fall and bankruptcy seemed imminent. A string of poor product releases, their refusal to license the Mac OS and the collapse of the corporate culture that made them famous threatened to kill the once mighty tech giant. Things were so bad that a $150 million investment from Microsoft may well be all that saved the company.
Today, Apple's position couldn't be different. They've been posting record revenue every quarter and over 230,000 iOS devices are activated each day. And yet, the coast is still not clear. Yesterday's big media event was a reaction to encroaching threats. Dangers that lurk in the distance.
Steve Jobs still refuses to allow any licensing of proprietary Apple operating systems. He insists upon a closed ecosystem that, while currently effective, may end up causing the company big problems. Jobs may be arrogant (and, in fairness, he's earned a bit of arrogance) but he isn't stupid. If bloggers like me can see the similarity between his current position and the lofty heights of the Apple II days, he's certainly noticed it.
The tech industry moves quickly, and today's giant is tomorrow's rotting corpse trampled underfoot by a horde of nimble usurpers. Apple cannot rely fully on their continued dominance of the mobile device sphere. Hence, Ping.
Ping's purpose is very simple. As a social networking tool, it engages users in an active community and allows them to share media with their friends while drawing them closer into the iTunes ecosystem. It keeps customers, Mac and PC alike, inside iTunes for as long as possible. Follow your friends, see what they're listening to and, if you like it, buy that song! Follow your favorite musicians so you can see when they release a new song and buy it! Stay connected to your favorite bands while simultaneously forking every spare dollar over to Apple.
When Apple collapsed in the mid-to-late 1990s, it was because their only revenue generating products started to fail. The Mac line aged, a few mediocre products sapped customer confidence and some serious blunders from the beaten path (Newton) cost the company money it could not afford. When they finally pulled back from these misadventures, it was almost too late to save their core business.
If Apple finds itself in a similar situation, with Android and MeeGo and WP7 devices gobbling up smartphone and tablet market share and the collapsing desktop market sending Mac sales into a free-fall, they'll still have their content-distribution racket to fall back on. iTunes is a safety net, a profitable, ubiquitous product in no imminent danger of being outshone by the competition.
Steve Jobs has been down that long, dark road before, and I wouldn't be surprised if he jolts awake from time-to-time locked in fear of a corporate relapse. iTunes, and to a lesser extent Apple TV and its new media-renting scheme, are his parachute. He'll fight tooth and nail to forestall another fall from grace but, if it happens, content distribution will give him what he needs to keep Apple alive.