What happened to Ning?
It was the perfect service at the perfect time.
Mashups are hot right now. Really hot. David Berlind oversold his MashUp Camp in a week and now has an impressive waiting list forming. And John Musser’s list of mashups continues to grow (see Richard MacManus’ post on this too).
The idea of Ning, which launched in October 2005, is brilliant. Let people easily create social applications tailored with difference web services. Allow others to clone those applications and take the code from them directly into whatever they are building instead of building from scratch. Watch everything evolve as better and better stuff gets built, which in turn is used to build even better stuff. Ning leverages the platform by aggregating the applications and selling advertising and premium tools/features.
But the reality of Ning is that it’s lost whatever coolness it had, no one uses it and Ning is going to have a very hard time getting people’s attention when they finally do roll out better functionality.
Here’s are the problems:
First, You have to know PHP, or at least HTML, to build anything unique on Ning. They promise to create tools to allow non-programmers to build stuff in the future, but for now, 99.9% of the Internet population is effectively locked out from creating new stuff.
Second, there is no support for the key web service APIs out there that people are really excited about mashing up. Instead, Ning has created a suite of custom applications…but which lack the scalability and functionality of what’s out there on the open web.
Yes, you can pull in services like Google Maps if you have the programming skills to do so (see here for an example), but Ning does not pull these in as modules to get you started, which would be really compelling.
Third, Ning keeps all of the applications under the ning.com roof. This has benefits like free hosting, but application creators don’t get control of the page to add advertising and they cannot get user registration data direclty. Users create a Ning account to use the mashups. That’s great for really small time stuff, but no one serious will build on the platform.
Fourth, Ning did everything wrong in communicating with their users. At first they called it 24hourLaundry and no one knew what Ning would be. With the benefit of hindsight, this looks silly. No one was rushing to launch anything similar, and in fact telling users about their plans and getting feedback would have helped them build a better product.
Even today, the Ning blog focuses on highlighting mashups, none of which are that great, instead of telling users when new and better features and tools will be released. They are not learning from their mistakes, and that is the worst thing of all.
If the best thing you have to show the world is Kitten Wars, you are in trouble. This is not compelling stuff.