Once upon a time, tech behemoths such as Microsoft and Apple battled to persuade businesses and consumers to purchase their computers, mobile devices or software packages.
Those days seem so quaint now.
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Today, the battle is on a much larger scale. It is a war between vast ecosystems made up of hardware, software and online services, not just individual pieces of hardware and software. Purchase an iPhone, for example, and you're buying into the entire Apple ecosystem, including operating systems, apps, add-ons, music, movies, books and more. The big money isn't in your single purchase, but in encouraging you to purchase only products and services that interact with each other -- and your wallet.
With BYOD on the rise and our personal and professional lives becoming increasingly intermixed, an individual's choice to buy into one of these ecosystems affects her business use, and vice versa. And while many of us function in two or more of these ecosystems, others increasingly depend on a single system for both personal and business needs.
There are new players in this game as well. Now it's not just Apple and Microsoft, but also Amazon and Google and a host of specialists. Each offers a vast array of products -- and because there are strong differences between them, each offers distinct advantages and disadvantages, depending on which part of the ecosystem you're examining.
For example, Google and Amazon aren't hardware heavy hitters (although Google is indirectly involved in hardware through its Android mobile OS), while Apple and Microsoft are relatively weaker in shopping. Microsoft is strong in gaming, while Amazon rules when it comes to books. But one way or another, they're all locked in a death match.
In this article, we examine four of the largest technological media ecosystems -- Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft -- in terms of a variety of media: reading materials (books and magazines), gaming, music, shopping and video, as well as other areas. We also assess each ecosystem in terms of how well it works as a unified whole -- in other words, how smoothly each part of the ecosystem works with all the other parts.
To do this, we've enlisted three writers who have a great deal of experience in covering these ecosystems and reviewing their products: JR Raphael on Google, Michael deAgonia on Apple, and Preston Gralla on Amazon and Microsoft. (Gralla also wrote the introductions and conclusion.).
How do these huge ecosystems compare when it comes to the media marketplace? Let's see.
How did each ecosystem develop?
Each of the four companies we're covering -- Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft -- has a different history, and so their ecosystems have developed in vastly different ways. Microsoft and Apple, for example, were born in the days when tech companies rose and fell based on the hardware and software they sold, while Google is a child of the Internet.
Amazon, on the other hand, started with a vision of an integrated ecosystem almost from its founding -- in a New York Times interview from 2005, CEO Jeffrey Bezos is quoted as saying that it is "...very important to get into new categories beyond books reasonably quickly." You have to wonder, however, if the company ever envisioned the sprawling network it would become.
Here's how each one grew.
Entertainment media is part of Amazon's basic DNA: The company was founded as a book-selling site in 1994. When it began branching out into selling other products, it initially focused on CDs and DVDs, and then added games, electronics -- and, eventually, everything else under the sun.
But even as Amazon broadened its reach beyond media, that segment remained a strong focus. Its first acquisitions of other businesses were mainly entertainment-related, including the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) in 1999, the online music retailer CDNow in 2003 and many others.
Today, Amazon is a retail behemoth, but media remains its core business --- witness its Kindle line of devices, all of which are designed to make it easier to buy books, movies, TV shows and music. And while other retailers have attempted to compete -- such as Barnes & Noble with its Nook line of e-readers -- so far, none have made serious inroads against the Amazon Goliath.
So it should be no surprise that its media ecosystem is powerful, well-integrated, and possibly the largest in the world.
In 1984, Apple's Macintosh was the first mass market computer to ship with a graphical user interface and mouse, opening up computing to users uncomfortable with the then-standard text-and-keyboard-based interface. After that, a flurry of technology initiatives -- from iMovie in 1999 to iTunes in 2001 to iPhoto in 2002 -- emphasized Apple's intentions to bring computerized media to its users.
However, it was the company's first foray into digital audio players that changed Apple's fortunes and validated its strategy. Apple's first music player, the iPod, introduced in 2001, was about the size of a deck of cards. Designed around Toshiba's 1.8-in. 5GB hard drive, it could hold approximately a thousand songs and automatically synchronized data and music content from the Mac using the already popular iTunes as the intermediary. It became the keystone for what Apple co-founder, chairman and CEO Steve Jobs termed his "Digital Hub" concept, where Apple's technology would be positioned at the center of the rising digital lifestyle.
The other shoe dropped during an April press event in 2003 when Apple introduced the iTunes Music Store, which offered the simple pricing structure of 99 cents per song and $9.99 per album. Any song purchase would automatically download and add itself to the music library -- which, in turn, would sync with iPods.
There was, however, a catch: The tracks were encoded with digital rights management (DRM) software, which limited playback and management to three computers (but an unlimited number of iPods).
In 2007, Apple rocked the tech world with the announcement of the iPhone, featuring a single button on a 3.5-in. glass screen and an interface designed to be manipulated with fingers using touches and gestures. The iPhone, like the iPod before it, had access to all of the content in the iTunes/App Store as well as many specialized accessories. In 2010, Apple followed with the iPad, which has become a conduit for users who want to access a wide and still-developing media universe.
Google started in 1996 as a collaboration between two Stanford computer science grad students: Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The service was known as BackRub during its infancy; in 1997, the duo officially adopted the Google moniker.
During its first decade, Google made massive headway in the field of Internet search, an area that had remained relatively stagnant until its arrival. It wasn't until 10 years into its existence that the company really seemed ready to break out of the box.
Google's first steps into the media world happened in the fall of 2006, when Google announced it was acquiring a consumer video startup called YouTube. Then-CEO Eric Schmidt described the merger as a way for Google to provide "a compelling media entertainment service" for users, publishers and advertisers alike.
YouTube paved the way for a rapid expansion of Google's entertainment empire. The company announced its plans for the Android mobile operating system in 2007, with the first consumer handset -- the T-Mobile G1 -- launching a year later alongside the first incarnation of the Android Market.
And things didn't stop there: Google unveiled a Web-centric operating system called Chrome OS in 2009, a television platform called Google TV in 2010 and services for online movie and music streaming in 2011. With each move, the simple search box moved further into the background of Google's persona, although search itself remained at the core of the company's business.
"The search business isn't just about search -- it's about attention," says James McQuivey, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. "Google's newer ventures represent an expansion of the ways the company can get that."
In tech years, Microsoft is an ancient company, founded in 1975 -- nearly 40 years ago -- by Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Back then, the furthest thing on the founders' minds was anything related to entertainment -- they were focused on products such as a BASIC interpreter, and then (with a contract in late 1980 with IBM) on operating systems like PC-DOS. The earliest PCs that ran DOS were far from gaming machines; many games required that users install add-on boards such as those made by a company called Hercules.
In 1982 Microsoft licensed a version of a flight simulation game from a company subLOGIC Corporation and called it Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0. Not only did the game become popular, but in those early days of PCs, the ability to run Microsoft Flight Simulator (and Lotus 1-2-3) was often used to test whether a machine was 100 percent compatible with the IBM PC.
Through the years, Microsoft has had media winners and losers. The Zune media player was a notable flop, but the Xbox 360 video game platform and community has become a rousing success, along with the Halo and Age of Empires series of games. Microsoft seems to be holding its own with its Windows Phone mobile devices, but there are a lot of people wondering whether its Surface tablets -- especially the lower-end Surface RT -- are innovative or a mistake.
Still, Microsoft's media system is a work in progress, being very strong in some areas such as gaming, and very weak in others, such as shopping and books.
Books and magazines
Predictions of the demise of printed books and magazines, brought on by digital media, have been premature -- but still, there's no denying that e-books and digital magazines are big business. An annual report from the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group found that the entire consumer book market was $15.12 billion in 2012, of which $3.042 billion were e-books. And according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, by 2017 consumer e-book sales will overtake consumer print book sales, with a predicted $8.2 billion in sales. Here's how the ecosystems stack up.
When you think of Amazon, you think of books, and with good reason: It's the foundation upon which the entire Amazon empire was built. Amazon is the world's largest book retailer. Just consider the numbers: Amazon has an estimated 60 percent of the e-book market and an estimated 25 percent of the market for printed books, according to its competitor Barnes & Noble. Whether you're looking to buy physical books or e-books, Amazon is the place to go. And it sells magazines on its e-reader the Kindle, as well as from its website.
The ecosystem includes the Kindle e-reader hardware, but you're not limited to reading e-books purchased through Amazon on that. There are also Kindle reader apps for the PC, Mac, iOS and Android devices. And Amazon is more than just a bookseller; it's a publisher as well, with seven imprints that cover everything from science fiction to mysteries, romance, nonfiction and literary fiction. It's this simple: Amazon's ecosystem rules the book world.
Apple made a late entry into digital book sales in January 2010, with the introduction of iBooks. This free iOS app functions as a gateway for the iBookstore -- where e-books are available both for free and for purchase -- and is also used for storing these books, and for reading on Apple's mobile hardware lineup. The iBookstore carries over 1.75 million books in 155 countries, and prices start at free and don't often go higher than $14.99. These e-book files contain DRM, but follow the same rules as video: That is, you can share these books among up to five computers authorized to iTunes, and an unlimited number of iOS devices can be used as they're synced up to any one of the five computers.
If you're not a fan of the iBooks app, or have already invested in another ecosystem, don't panic. Within the App Store, there are over 55,000 apps listed under the Books category, including full support for competing services, like Kindle, Nook and other popular (and not so popular) e-book readers. If you like comic books, there are plenty of choices here, too, with Marvel, DC and Image -- among others -- offering comics for purchase and download to their respective apps.
Apple also spotlights your newspaper and magazine subscriptions in the form of Newsstand, a specialized home screen folder that, when tapped, offers access to all of your subscriptions. There is an option to automatically download content when a change is detected, assuring that whenever you check the Newsstand, the information you are accessing is up to date. The Newsstand icon displays a numbered badge when updates are released. (The icons for newspapers and magazines -- which sit on virtual shelves in Newsstand -- also update themselves to represent the latest cover, which is a nice touch.)