State of the mobile industry: Ecosystems

December 27, 2012
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android vs ios vs windows 8

As we all know, the mobile landscape is stiff with competing ecosystems. With Android and Apple leading the way, Windows is intent on making a strong showing. Amazon has their own ecosystem, but can something so tightly controlled be a long-term success? While we may never see a truly dominant ecosystem, the new battleground that is mobile will be an important one to gain the lead.

Google v. Apple v. Microsoft v. Amazon

Apple

When the smartphone game started, it started with Apple. They released the iPhone, and the world went bonkers. It was the coolest thing anyone had ever seen. Now we have a slew of options, and each tie into a competing ecosystem. With each having their own merits and pitfalls, the choice is yours… but which one has the goods and which one(s) are just along for the ride?

Apple has a very protected and coddled iOS system, and they do a wonderful job of making sure that their services work seamlessly with their devices. Considering they were the first wildly popular ecosystem for mobile, it stands to reason that they will have a bulk of the market share. As the world tilts toward mobility and accessibility, the ecosystems must adjust. Apple’s iOS has long been a standard for the end user experience, and should be applauded for what they accomplish. Does that mean Apple is the best because they have a proprietary system that works well with their devices? Not at all.

Tim Cook introducing the iPhone 5 (Photo credit: AP)

Microsoft

Let’s remember that in terms of smartphones and ecosystems… Windows beat everyone to the punch. Their very popular Samsung Blackjack came out a full year before the first iPhone. It was a good phone with a bad operating system. Windows was a bit like a dog chasing cars back then; they weren’t really sure why they were doing it or how to do it best, but they knew they had to. That phone, and all Windows phones until recently, were little more than a way to sync those pesky Microsoft Office files to your device. Until Windows Phone 7, all a Windows phone did was force a desktop UI onto a tiny screen, and it just didn’t work.

What Microsoft lost was time, and valuable market share. Had they embraced mobile all those years ago, we’d probably be talking about the next Windows phone rather than the new Android iteration. What the iPhone built, and Android took to the next level, Windows will never get back — the experience. Had Windows succeeded, we may never know what an app is. The world may be stuck in that mid 90’s time-warp of file folders and USB syncing.

Microsoft doesn’t really have an ecosystem, because they don’t take mobile seriously. They are making the same mistakes they always made in trying to make a phone use an OS designed for the desktop. It just isn’t smooth or friendly, and offers very little. While Windows 8 is their best effort yet, it’s still buggy and lacks widespread support from the ever-important third party developers.

windows 8 ballmer

Amazon

Amazon has a very popular device line in the Kindle family, which is tied firmly to their ecosystem. They took a page from Apple, and a severely hijacked OS from Android. They have a controlled environment with a lot of things to do, and their media library is truly amazing. Cheap devices, and a lot of stuff to do on them… it sounds utopian.

What Utopia is controlled so tightly, though? You are slave to the Amazon world, and while it has a lot to offer, it falls short in many respects. You can’t get access to many Google services, and many developers don’t write apps for it. The devices are meant to get you Amazon services. It really only shines when you have an amazon Prime membership, and now you’re talking about an annual maintenance cost for this ecosystem to be viable.

Amazon Kindle

Google

Android has a rapidly growing fan base  and with good reason. Android is tied into Google services, and those services are free. You don’t pay anything other than the cost of the device, but what you get in return is truly special. The access is nearly unlimited, and most developers have come to embrace the Android platform. While you don’t get Play Store on a Kindle, you do get Amazon apps on an Android device. The choice to be open source was a good one for Android and Google.

While being open is a great idea, it has it’s drawbacks. You have what could be too many choices. Let’s take something as simple as file storage. I could choose to utilize the Google Drive app that came on my Nexus device, or download something like Dropbox. I can also utilize Microsoft’s SkyDrive, or Amazon’s Cloud drive system. The list goes on, and it’s the gift and the curse. While people have the freedom to choose what really works for them, they can get confused and upset at the myriad of choices. While I may be a fairly savvy user, many are not and need to be guided.

Fortunately, Google recognizes this and has taken steps to ease people into Android starting with the Ice Cream Sandwich iteration of Android. Since then, users have had a much easier time of setting up their devices and shown all their devices and the Android ecosystem has to offer. Even now, Google offers “music matching” for those users switching to Android from another operating system. You simply let the program access your files, and it finds the matching music file on Play Store.

nexus-7

Media content — who brings the goods?

We want to listen to music, watch movies, and read books on our devices. Our phones and tablets are entertainment devices, and we want to take advantage as best we can. An ecosystem is often only as good as the media we can enjoy on it. While Apple has long been the standard here, Amazon has made a very strong showing. Google’s Play Store is increasing content every day, but still has a lot of ground to make up.

Amazon has what many consider the best overall selection of media. From music to movies, books to magazines, they have a great all-around selection. While iTunes may trump them in music or magazines, Amazon has a very robust library of media to suit everyone’s needs. Failing to find what you need on either platform is difficult, and that says quite a bit for how seriously they both take their ecosystems.

What Play Store may be lacking in media content, they make up for in apps that access content. Aside from movies, you can do anything else Amazon has on offer with an Amazon app from the Play Store. If you want to watch a movie on your Android device, there is always Netflix or the limited (but growing) selection on the Play Store.

There is a Kindle app for Windows 8, but it’s buggy. Windows does have their Xbox utility for media, which has a fair sampling of movies and music to choose from. You can expect Microsoft to continue to build on that platform, as Xbox continues to be a cornerstone of their strategy. The wildly popular gaming platform isn’t going anywhere, but hasn’t caught up to the mobile landscape yet. There are a few games for mobile available via Xbox, but nothing of note.

google-play-front

Apps

Android has really come through in the past year or so with apps. The open source platform is gaining ground every day, and developers are starting to embrace it as a viable source of revenue and exposure. While we used to wait for iOS apps to be ported over (often poorly) to the Android platform, it is now treated as on par with iOS in the app landscape. While Android still waits for some apps to make the move from iOS, there are plenty of offerings that come to Android first. You’ll be hard-pressed to go wanting for an app in the Play Store.

Amazon has a nice lineup of apps, though usually only the most popular of Android apps are available. If you really like Angry Birds, Amazon is your place. If you like Google services like Drive or Maps, you will be seriously disappointed. Doing a search for many Google services leads to an app I’ve never heard of. I trust Google stuff… I know Google stuff. Using MapQuest instead of Google maps? No thanks, Amazon.

While it feels awkward to make excuses for Windows, considering they had every advantage to get a handle on this mobile thing years ago, it’s worth noting that they are new to the mobile scene in terms of apps. Their app offering is currently pretty bad. The world operates on apps, and Windows simply doesn’t have them yet.

Apple may still rule the app landscape with just about every offering under the sun, but Android is a close second. Amazon and Windows have yet to truly embrace apps, which could prove fatal when competing against the likes of Apple or Android.

itunes_8_genius

Who controls the market?

The quick answer is a five letter word I don’t like saying. The long answer has to do with the rest of the world, and where they stand in this landscape. While the United States may be the epicenter for data consumption, the rest of the world deserves just as much respect. If we’re truly a global economy, then we need to show a little love to our friends across the various ponds.

As an example, let’s take a look at Play Store. The UK Play Store is just now getting magazines. In a normal discussion on Google+, you will find people from all over the world who simply want to be able to enjoy the same services we do stateside. Services like Field Trip or Play Movies don’t work in most other countries… even in Canada, which I don’t even consider a different country. Why is that?

Simply put, it’s a big job and they were taking care of their home turf first. Android and Amazon are making strides in embracing the world market, but let’s be honest in that Apple once again has a foothold. Apple has been in the game longer and had a large head start on everyone, and they do a wonderful job of embracing other markets.

While I don’t think that anyone is necessarily being ignored globally, there is definitely plenty of room for all ecosystems to stake their claim. The world is clamoring for the services they read so much about. The first ecosystem to truly embrace emerging markets will be the one that reigns supreme.

If we are going to consider who controls the market, we have to consider who has the strongest current representation outside of the US… and that’s Apple. With a healthy head start on the rest of the industry, it’s no surprise that they have the best showing, but even at that… nobody has true worldwide domination. Apple may have a lead, but by no means a stranglehold.

iPad-mini-vs-Kindle-Fire-HD-vs-Nexus-7

Can Google win?

In any competitive arena, our mind tells us someone must win. In this scenario, that’s not necessarily positive. With competition comes innovation, and innovation has got us to the point we’re at now. If any one ecosystem were to reign supreme, it would be devastating to the future of mobile technology. What’s more important to consider is whether or not the leader of the pack is doing the right things for the industry.

If those worldwide sales figures hold steady, Google and Android will retain a firm grasp on the market which gives them the best implemented ecosystem. So, how are they doing it? Again, an open platform really rules the day here. Google has many partners, and those partners have used Android to build their own platforms. Two of the largest manufacturers, Samsung and HTC, have their own versions of Android on each of their phones. While those are altered versions, they are still Android. In Samsung, Android has a strong ally with which to partner for devices.

Google has a variety of services, all free to use for Android users. There is no charge for Maps or Navigation, Drive or YouTube. Everything is free to use, and while this is clearly a means to gain followers, it’s also an example of Google giving freely to it’s users. Where other ecosystems may charge for cloud storage or data backup, Google provides all that free of charge.

google logo [aa] Meneame/Flickr

Conclusion

If we’re considering things as they are this very minute, Apple is the market leader. They had a healthy lead on all competitors, and it shows with their market share. Android, however, is set to take that title away very soon. Amazon and Windows both have very decent ecosystems, but their global implementation is poor. Where Amazon and Apple hold massive leads (media), Android is making serious strides. All ecosystems continue to improve all the time.

Where an ecosystem wins is across multiple platforms, and that’s a large reason Apple is leading the way. Their OS iterations for mobile and desktop are similar and work flawlessly together. Amazon has the most ground to make up here, and it really is their Achilles’ heel. Aside from the Kindle devices, Amazon has nothing else in the way of presence. Microsoft is taking a page from the Apple book and utilizing the PC market to have a cross platform OS. While a noble idea, it’s just not very good. Microsoft just can’t seem to truly understand that a phone is not a computer.

In consideration of platforms, and having a presence on all fronts, Android is in the best position to overthrow Apple. While it is a daunting task, consider the one thing you’re probably doing right now. More than likely, you’re using a web browser to read this story. Chrome is fast becoming the most popular web browser on Earth, and that’s a very important step towards ecosystem domination. If you can impress with a browser, people will become interested in your other services. The Chrome browser is available on any Apple or Windows computer, subversively eroding their respective user bases and giving Google a cross-platform presence.

If we’re revisiting this in one year’s time, we will undoubtedly be discussing Google’s meteoric rise to the top. They are poised to assume a leadership role, and rightfully so. Their ecosystem is quickly growing, and has the largest upside. The Android ecosystem openly embraces new and different things, and that gives us choices. Even if you use Android wholly, you still have a myriad of choices you simply don’t get anywhere else. Android really is the best of all worlds in the ecosystem comparison, and that’s why it will come out on top.

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