Apple is good at many things, but so far, it has not excelled at "social" Web services. For example, Ping, the music-focused service it launched in 2010, is seen as one of its rare failures.

But now Apple has a real chance to do something "social" properly, by turning its huge and growing base of iOS users into a useful social platform, while maintaining appropriate privacy and security.

The need for such a service has heightened over the past week by a pretty ugly controversy: Several social iOS apps have been caught uploading the contents of phones' address books to their servers - without asking for permission - in order to make friend-finding easier. The Feds even want to know what's going on.

As embarrassing as this is, it's actually a big opportunity for Apple to build something new.

Like what? Apple is already working on an update that will require apps to obtain explicit permission before accessing your address book, the same way they have to ask for permission to access your geographic location and Twitter account.

But why stop there?

Apple can take all that address book data and make a real social platform out of it, adding features like two-way friend confirmation, blocking users, public profiles, photo sharing, activity streams, whatever. Then, one click could let you import all that stuff, especially all those existing friend relationships, into apps. Eventually, this could even become a standalone social network service, like Facebook. Maybe call it "Friend Center".

Why bother?

It's hard to overstate the importance of social apps for Apple's iOS platform. Many of its most popular apps are owned by social networks, including Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. And many of its top games are social, too, ranging from "Words With Friends" to multi-player card games.

So Apple needs iOS to be a great social platform; it can't just ignore it. Why not become the best?

Then, there are all kinds of other reasons for Apple to build something like this, from iAd targeting to App Store and iTunes recommendations to eventual integration with Apple's TV platform.

Today, app makers can integrate Facebook and Twitter's social networks to help you find your friends from those services. Of course, many developers have built in the now-controversial feature that lets you sift through your address book for friends. And Apple's Game Center service helps game developers add some social features. But there's still room for a broader social service from Apple.

What about formally farming this out to Facebook or Twitter? That seems increasingly unlikely.

Apple should know by now, looking at Facebook's growth and stature, how valuable it is to own a huge social platform. (Steve Jobs also complained publicly about Facebook's "onerous terms.") Plus, not everyone's going to want to use Facebook or Twitter.

And what if Facebook decides to become more competitive with Apple down the road, perhaps by launching its own mobile OS? Apple has already learned its lesson, depending so much on Google for core iOS features, that it's not likely to repeat the move.

So, given Apple's preference for owning and controlling the services its users rely on, and the trust Apple's users place in it to maintain their privacy and security, it seems like it's time to start building its own social platform. We'll see how far it goes.

Photo courtesy Shutterstock.