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I wrote a very critical post about Ning two weeks ago that generated a lot of discussion (Rob Hof at Business Week followed my story, then retracted).

The main thing that I took away from the discussion was that Ning employees responded professionally to my admittedly inflamatory post title (Ning – R.I.P.). And they subsequently reached out to both me and the Ning community in general to better communicate their product plans. Ning had been a impenetrable fortress to me prior to that post – I just could not make contact with anyone senior (not that they owe that to me). However, after visiting CEO Gina Bianchini at the Ning offices in Palo Alto last week, I now have a much better idea of where the company is going in the near future. And I am going to post some of the details here.

First of all, Ning already has some dedicated people creating and promoting applications. I saw a number of examples of existing applications, like cinecrap, that are at least defendable as “interesting”, particularly given the early stage of Ning’s product.

Second, Ning is working hard to roll out new features, including dead-simple tools to create uniquely different applications without the need for any programming skills whatsoever.

Currenlty, to do much other than clone an existing application, you need to know PHP or at least HTML. What I saw last week, which was not yet release-ready, was already good enough to make Ning a very useful platform. Basically, they’ve combined an AJAX drag and drop interface with simple web forms to position and interact with modules. A “module” can either be Ning created, or more interestingly, a third party web service such as Google Maps or Amazon book meta data. If I had seen this stuff before, I would not have written my previous post.

There are other great features coming as well, such as a premium hosting plan that allows publishers to put in their own ads, host applications themselves, etc.

The core strengths of Ning are the new tools to build applications without programming skills, and the shared customer base which allows an new application creator to have instant access to all registered Ning customers (you register once at Ning as a user, and can then use all applications).

As many people said in the comments to my previous post, the market will decide if Ning is successful. But they are most definitely not dead.

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