As new breeds of technology relentlessly populate the market, the competition gets tighter. There are a number of proponents who focus primarily on the hardware aspect, but today, the battle in the big league is no longer about who has the best specs. The real fight largely involves coming up with the most seamless and most efficient digital ecosystem.
It’s all about providing users with a universal account that gives them access to an integrated bundle of services that deliver music, movies, TV, games, desktop integration, cloud services—you name it. This ecosystem is the core of what we call the “smart life.”
We take the digital bionetwork of three of the biggest players in the tech industry—Apple, Google, and Microsoft— and put them under the microscope.
Apple figured it out before anyone else did. Through the years, the company has always been big on creating a strong, seamless connection within its own roster of devices and services, and this emphasis on internal symbiosis is perhaps their biggest edge over the competition.
BEING SELF-CENTERED IS A GOOD THING…
With the exception of Surface, the Nexus, and the Chromebook, Microsoft and Google are providers of software for products that they don’t manufacture themselves. Apple—although it outsources the entrails from Toshiba, Intel, and other OEMs—has chosen to make its own software ecosystem for a range of devices that they package themselves.
Self-contained—that’s pretty much the best way to describe Apple’s ecosystem. Apple software and services are for Apple products. Highbrow as it may sound, this type of exclusivity and independence creates a window of opportunity for them to attract consumers to use their products and only their products with the promise of a seamless, unified experience. There is no battle over tech specs within the Apple ecosystem since the only gadgets that are able to offer the Apple experience are, well, Apple gadgets.
The Apple experience is the one thing that the company has been selling all these years, masked behind promoting the purchase of the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod, the Macbook, and the iMac. When you buy an Apple gadget, you don’t buy it because of its processor, its screen resolution, and all the other hardware stunts they’re using to elbow each other off in the Android mosh pit. Heck, you don’t even buy it because of iOS.
The core of the Apple experience is the Apple ID—the key to the gates of their walled garden.
The Apple ID is universal, which means you don’t have to create new accounts for each Apple service you want to use. You have access to iCloud, iChat, Apple Support, the Genius Bar, FaceTime, iLife applications, the iBookstore, and—the two most important services in the Apple ecosystem—the iTunes Store and the App Store.
The introduction of the iTunes Store in 2003—then called the iTunes Music Store— forever changed Apple’s fortunes, as well as the landscape of digital media distribution. Today, iTunes is home to a vast library of music and movies accessible not just by Apple devices, but others as well. It transforms your device into a Barney Bag from which you can pull out multimedia goodies.
The App Store, meanwhile, is the biggest mobile application market today, with a plethora of programs that cater to any kind of digital need, whether it’s for boosting productivity, expanding communication options, socializing, accessing multimedia content, or just plain fun.
On top of all the Apple-exclusive services you can enjoy with the use of your Apple ID, the brand gives you the coveted luxury of being able to keep all your gadgets—your laptop, your desktop, your smartphone, your tablet, your music player, your TV—interconnected, as long as they’re from Apple. It is by virtue of this interconnectivity that they transcend their basic purposes.
Your iPhone, for instance, can serve as a screen extension for your Mac via Air Display, and it can also transform into a touch-controlled remote for your Apple TV. You can even sync your calendars, Safari bookmarks, contacts, mail, and whatever else you need with all your Apple devices through the tight assimilation the company provides.
Apple packages everything you need to have a complete digital lifestyle under their brand. Chances are, though, if you’ve thrown in your entire virtual life into the Apple ecosystem, it’s not going to be easy getting out—the company’s not letting its well-guarded treasures past their walls any time soon.
No matter how bright the light of the promise of a sound digital ecosystem shines, exclusivity is something that the customer naturally fears.
The Apple bionetwork is a closed circuit and with the tightness of its devices, there isn’t much reason for you to consider being on any other platform, save for one: Apple’s gadgets aren’t very wallet-friendly.
Yes, Filipinos always want the best gadgets in town (and we just looove flaunting the big-ticket brands), but we also have a good eye for value. Flexibility is one kind of value and it’s something that competitor Google can offer.
Let’s examine iCloud: it syncs your documents, contacts, calendar, and mail to all your gadgets and allows music, video, books and app purchases from iTunes, the App Store and iBookstore on one device to be immediately available for download on the others. The requirement, as we have repeatedly stressed, is that your devices must be from Apple.
Google Drive, on the other hand, doesn’t require any specific OS for you to use it. You just need a Gmail account to access it on your browser and the app for it to be able to sync with your mobile device automatically. Google Drive is even available for iOS.
For practical-minded consumers with shifting digital needs and alterable brand loyalty, the sacred word of Apple that guarantees a unified experience doesn’t seem to justify the price of buying Apple gadgets and only Apple gadgets. Exclusivity is just too damn high a price.
A TRUSTED DEAL
Yet no matter how much we probe and criticize Apple’s self-centeredness, the fact remains that more than anyone else, their efforts are centralized at product integration, and this is why they have earned such a strong brand perception in the eyes of consumers worldwide.
The Apple ecosystem is the ultimate utopia for tech consumers who are determined enough to entrust their digital lives in the hands of one brand and say “Here’s my money and my loyalty. Now go and get my devices and programs to work with each other.” Yes, others may offer a similar degree of interconnectivity in the near future—in fact, some are even trying to do that now—but because of the hardware circus currently cluttering their focus, it might take a while for their offerings to be just as close-knit as Apple’s.
Ah, the Big G. Google, the darling child of the tech industry at the moment, is so deeply intertwined with our lives, or rather, ours are with it, that it’s impossible to talk about technological synergy without getting into a discussion about Google.
Because of their massive presence in all the different devices people use daily, they are in a unique position to entrench themselves very very deeply in our tech lives. They’ve done a very good job of it, too. From your mobile phone, which is almost constantly in your pocket or bag, to the many accounts and services on your main desktop or laptop, the OS on tablets and the services that unify them all, Google is right there, helping you work, making you productive and even snuggling with you under the covers. It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually pretty helpful.
The key to unlocking all the awesomeness available to the Google user is of course, the Google account. This is, simply put, your Gmail address. That one key, once signed in to the appropriate service, does more than unlock all the features of a given G service. Google knows that it is a cross-platform solution, and that its users will likely use different devices each and every day, so logging into each of the services will let you pick up on your laptop, where you left off on your tablet, if, say, you were browsing the Internet when on Chrome. Your search terms, history, bookmarks and all that useful goodness you would otherwise have to re-open, re-click and re-type will all be there, just waiting for you to keep on keeping on. This is a small thing compared to other services, but it’s just one of those things that you appreciate for not being noticeable in the first place. It just works, and really well.
Cloud storage is another realm that Google has rightly penetrated. With the limited storage available to mobile devices, and the constant accessibility to the Internet that people enjoy, the Cloud is an increasingly attractive place to store information. Thinking back, it seems to have started with the Gigabyte of storage available to Gmail users. This allowed them to never have to delete emails again, and keep files within said emails accessible anywhere there was an Internet connection handy. It has since blossomed into Drive, which is a great place to store and synchronize odd bits and pieces of your life, but a great place to keep backups that you can get to virtually anywhere. It’s unobtrusive. Just set the appropriate directory on your home device, and anything you save there will be uploaded, ready for retrieval any time.
Drive is also the facility on which you can create, store and edit files normally reserved for the word processor on your desktop. You can skip the desktop altogether, work on the file on Drive, skip paying for a word processor, and have that online, ready for further editing, sharing, or storage without any extra steps. It simply works quietly in the background, hardly even letting you know it is there or getting in the way. It works on mobile devices as well, though not as handily, but gets the job done. If you are in a line of work that sees you jump to and from the office a lot, this can save your life, or at least the hassle of unproductive down time. It also allows for real-time collaboration right on the page, regardless of where the concerned parties are.
Google music is the same. It lets you upload music, then access it through the Cloud and an internet connection with no sweat. You can then have a copy on your local machine, as you always have, or grant a mobile device access to your audio repository via an app on Android, which can then be told to analyze the music, to come up with playlists that have a similar sound to a particular song you are listening to.
Really though, the beauty of Google services lies in the integration across platforms. We simply can’t stress this enough. We have enough to worry about with all the accounts, devices, and data we carry around and require access to, the smooth, painless transition from one to another can’t be appreciated enough. It’s more than just messages and connecting with other people, it’s the convenience of hardly noticing when you’ve moved from laptop to desktop to tablet or mobile phone. Something as simple as Chrome’s Omnibox, which lets you perform searches, make queries and other simple Google tasks right from the URL field of the browser save quite a bit of effort in the long run, and adds convenience to the whole experience of using the Internet.
The biggest advantage of Google services is how little they care about what device you use; Google works hard to give most ecosystems apps for their different services, and even if your device isn’t on the list, their optimization for access over the web is very well done.
Furthermore, the integration of each of the apps across devices is tight. Just use Chrome on two of your devices, and you’ll get what we mean. They perfectly executed features that let you move painlessly from phone to desktop to tablet, painlessly—even for competing hardware.
On top of all that, Google Labs are constantly working on extra features that add value to the brand. Translate, for example, is getting smarter and more capable, and can now do some of the lighter translation work offline, with a few simple downloads. Voice commands and controls, while still finding their legs, are maturing nicely, and before long will provide the experience we were promised.
While Google isn’t alone in creating the kind of synergy that flows seamlessly from one device to the other, it does a pretty good job at it, and in so doing, is all the more useful and more likely to be utilized. Apps are also easily synchronized across multiple devices, oftentimes needing you to merely log in to transfer not only contacts and appointments, but start the download of apps that had previously been purchased or unlocked. There are many options, but in the years we have had Google-powered devices (after trying other options), we have never really had as smooth an experience as with Google apps and services. If you haven’t tried it, give it a shot. You won’t regret it, we promise.
Microsoft is a giant in the personal computing and operating systems universe. However, while a great majority of computer users use Windows PCs, only a diminutive minority use other Windows devices. To keep its dominance, Microsoft is doing everything it can to create an ecosystem beyond just the PC. In the face of other, better-established ecosystems, it is unclear whether the company has the ability to do so. Certainly, Microsoft is not yet where it aims to be.
Among its competitors, Microsoft has the least variation across devices. The Windows 8 interface, previously called Metro, looks practically the same on a Windows 8 PC, tablet, smartphone, and an Xbox 360, with its streamlined, tile-oriented, and generally pleasant look and feel. Once you have learned how to work your way through Windows 8 on one device, you can positively do it on all of them.
Compared to Apple computers, Windows PCs are much more economical, but you still get great performance for the money. The Microsoft ecosystem is also the only one that supports touchscreen PCs—the new standard for technology today.
Moreover, Microsoft continues to provide support for Windows XP, which was released more than 11 years ago. Having said that, the company will finally discontinue support for this legacy operating system in April of 2014, though this gives us an idea about the duration that one can use a given Windows operating system securely and efficiently with the latest updates. Roughly all Windows apps ever made operate on full Windows Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8. Only specialized Windows 8 apps in the Microsoft Store are exclusive to Windows 8; everything else works on Windows Vista and Windows 7.
BUT IT HAS DRAWBACKS, TOO
It cannot be denied that the Microsoft ecosystem is, to some extent, fragmented. A Windows Phone 8 app is not the same as a Windows RT app for Surface tablets and it’s also not the same as the corresponding app for a complete Windows 8 machine. Though the new Windows OS looks similar across Windows 8 devices—the first time Windows has been coalesced in this way—it does not give the same experience beneath the visual surface. The apps are different and compatibility is doubtful. In fact, some say that Windows PCs integrate better with Android or Apple devices than they do with other Windows devices.
Because Microsoft has no universal app, there’s little support for syncing similar apps across devices. Nevertheless, Microsoft devices do share the same universal login idea as Google devices. This means that even if the apps won’t carry over, once you log in to any Microsoft device, many of your settings and preferences will.
A CLOSER LOOK AT WHAT MICROSOFT HAS TO OFFER
Microsoft’s media ecosystem is still a work in progress. Over the years, Microsoft has had its hits and flops. It is on top of the market with gaming and operating systems, but fl ails in the area of shopping and books. The Windows Phone 8 is slowly breaking in and holding on its own in the market, but in the case of Microsoft’s tablet, Surface, it still has a long way to go.
Currently Microsoft has Windows 8, Surface, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox in the market. Mobile devices—Windows Phone 8 and Surface—serve different purposes, but both sync together with the use of the Windows PC, while the Xbox complements the living room as a one stop media hub. In addition, Microsoft also have Outlook.com, Office 365, SkyDrive, and other services.
Although Windows Phone 8 devices present an impressive spec sheet, in the Microsoft ecosystem, it is a bit weak. Frankly, they are not yet “red carpet” material. Why? Lack of app support is the answer. When everybody has Instagram, Facebook and Gmail accounts, what’s the point of having a phone without them? Yes, Windows 8 devices are integrated with Facebook, but it is not a release version for the platform and is a pretty grim-performing addition. It’s like committing social suicide, only in the digital realm.
The Windows PC integrates well with a Windows device that is solely running Windows 8. Get it? If not, then integration wouldn’t turn out as expected. A “My Windows Phone” app for Windows 8 PCs allows users to move media files around, share items from phone to PC, and save photos taken with the phone directly to the PC, but it is a different syncing experience if weighed against Apple and Google.
Microsoft has spent extensive effort to turn its gaming platform, the Xbox 360, into a well integrated and divergent ecosystem. The Xbox is recorded to be the best-selling gaming console, by far the richest and most comprehensive among its competitors. It enables users to connect their Windows 8 device to the Xbox 360 to see their gaming history, download games to the device, and use their Windows phone (or any smartphone) as a remote control for the Xbox via the SmartGlass app and other useful functions that signal Microsoft’s plans for the Xbox One. The next generation Xbox’s architecture aims to function as the centerpiece of the entire entertainment ecosystem in our homes.
Apart from the Xbox itself, Kinect is another Microsoft gaming resource. Without the use of a controller, Kinect lets you play games on the Xbox through the use of sensors that let you control the game with body gestures and voice.
Microsoft is a big player in the game platform. Aside from topping the gaming console market, Microsoft also has a number of game software megahits such as Age of Empires, and the Halo series. Fewer games are available for Windows Phone 8 because its app ecosystem isn’t as rich compared to iOS and Android.
The Zune digital music player was considered to be counterpart to Apple’s iTunes, but flopped. Attempting to knit together a music ecosystem, Microsoft has come up with the Xbox Music service—the Xbox Music app—for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and Xbox 360.
Other variables in Microsoft’s media ecosystem are Xbox Video, Bing or Wallet for online shopping, and Skype.
A WINDOW OF POSSIBILITIES
Microsoft provides good services along with a very stable desktop operating system and the addition of a bestselling living room console; it is a tough contender in the media ecosystem battle.
No doubt Microsoft is at the top of console and computer-based gaming, but it falls behind its contemporaries when it comes to mobile gaming— due to lack of app support—although it is only a tiny percentage of the gaming ecosystem.
What probably is the banana peel in the race is the lack of a cohesive integration among the company’s sprawling entertainment ecosystem—a significant element that, if capitalized on, will unleash the hidden gems that may send competitors back to their thinking chairs.
Words by Racine Anne Castro, Ren Alcantara, Janelle M. Bustilla and Mia Carisse Barrientos
First published in Gadgets Magazine, September 2013