Battle of the media ecosystems: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft

Four large tech ecosystems are currently vying for our attention -- and for our dollars. How well are they succeeding?

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Music lovers with iOS devices are not limited to the iTunes Store; Apple's App Store includes the streaming services Spotify and Pandora, and the music-matching services Shazam and SoundHound. There's even a karaoke game for Glee fans, called, appropriately enough, Glee Karaoke.

If you own an Apple TV or any AirPlay-capable receiver, music can be beamed from any iOS device, Mac or Windows computer with iTunes to your living room setup with the tap of the virtual AirPlay button.

Meanwhile, iTunes Match is Apple's $25/year service that provides cloud access for up to 25,000 of your songs on your iOS/OS X/Windows devices via music populated in the iTunes Store. If you live in an area with a good cellular signal and have an iOS device with limited storage, iTunes Match is a good buy.

The just-announced iTunes Radio will have more than 200 streaming radio stations and, as with Pandora, you'll be able to build your own radio stations based on your musical preferences. It will be free and ad-supported, although anyone who subscribes to the iTunes Match service ($24.99/year) will get it ad-free. It will integrate with iTunes, so that you can buy any track in iTunes that you're listening to in iiTunes Radio.

The question is: Will that be enough to fend off the competition, notably Pandora and Spotify? We won't know until its availability in the fall. But just having Apple's backing makes it an instant contender.

Google

In addition to offering albums and individual tracks for purchase, the Google Play Music interface allows you to upload your existing music collection and then stream it from Google's servers to any PC or mobile device. Any music connected to your account can also be "pinned" to a device for offline consumption.

As of May, Google also offers an on-demand streaming service called Google Play Music All Access; it provides unlimited streaming from Google's music library for $9.99/month. Songs from the service can be played on any device, be it a computer, smartphone or tablet. The All Access service includes an option for custom song- or artist-based "radio stations" in the style of Pandora, with no limit on the number of songs you want to skip.

At this point, Google Play's library of content is generally quite good. The store used to be rather limited in its music and movie offerings, but deals inked with Warner Music Group, 20th Century Fox and Time last fall rounded out the once-lacking selection.

Microsoft

When you think of Microsoft, music doesn't come to mind. Its Zune digital music player was a well-publicized flop, and it doesn't have a cloud-based music player like the Amazon Cloud Player or Google Play Music. Still, with its Xbox Music service for Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox 360, Microsoft has made an attempt to knit together a serious music ecosystem, and it's a good one. (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 users can only access the older Zune software music service.)

The Xbox Music app is built into Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and, of course, into the Xbox 360. But despite the app's name, you don't need an Xbox 360 to use it. It's yet one more example of Microsoft's confusing product naming.

There are two components to Xbox Music. One is an a la carte service that lets you buy tracks or albums individually. Its music selection is comprehensive and superb; Microsoft claims it has 18 million tracks in the U.S. from which to choose.

The second component is the Xbox Music Pass, a subscription service. For $10 per month, you get streaming access to those 30 million songs, and can also download them to your devices for offline listening. (If you cancel your subscription, you'll no longer have access to them.) Your playlists, music and albums sync across your devices. There's also a Pandora-like Smart DJ feature.

In addition, there's a free version of the subscription service that lets you listen to unlimited streaming music for six months for free, although you'll have to listen to ads. After six months, you're limited to 10 hours per month of listening.

The Xbox Music app and subscription service don't get nearly as much publicity as competitors like iTunes or Spotify. Despite that, though, it's a winner, and is good enough to make people forget the ill-begotten Zune digital music player -- if you're not one of the users still forced to use it, of course.

Video

Video, like digital music, is in the midst of a historic transition. Plenty of people still buy or rent DVDs, but there's no doubt that the future of video is in streaming services. At the moment, Netflix is dominant in this space, but each of the big computing ecosystems we examine here is trying to make gains as well. In this section we look at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Amazon

Amazon doesn't have a stranglehold on video like it does on books, but still, the video portion of its entertainment ecosystem is substantial and growing. As with everything else at Amazon, there's a tremendously large collection of videos and TV shows to buy as DVDs. There's an excellent selection of classic movies, foreign movies and independent movies. So if you're looking for popular Hollywood movies, old classics or for movies of directors such as the Polish-born Krzysztof Kieslowski, you'll likely find what you want.

Amazon has moved beyond physically delivering movies, and is pushing its Instant Video service, which lets you stream from a selection of 140,000 videos on a pay-per-play basis, as well as its Amazon Prime Instant Video, which lets you stream as many of them as you want as part of a $79/year Prime subscription. You can watch on a variety of devices, including the Kindle HD.

There's more as well. Following Netflix's lead, Amazon is producing its own TV shows as a way to draw people to its streaming video service. A half-dozen have already been announced, and they're not going to be low-budget, no-name affairs. Pulitzer Prize-winning Garry Trudeau is writing one of them (a comedy called Alpha House), another is being written by Big Bang Theory actors Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie, and another will be a satirical comedy about the news by The Onion.

Apple

The iTunes Store offers movies in 109 countries, and there are over 60,000 titles available. Selection varies by region. In the United States, iTunes accounted for 65 percent of feature-length movie downloads, and 67 percent of TV shows sold in 2012, according to NPD.

Videos are generally available on iTunes the day they are released to DVD. Many titles come with iTunes Extras, which can include interactive features, images and other bonus materials. You can also rent movies; rentals must be played within 30 days, and you have only 24 hours to finish once you begin watching.

Videos come with DRM encoded into the file, but the DRM-restricted content can be shared among up to five computers. iTunes allows an unlimited number of iOS devices to carry the content as long as they're synced up to any one of the five computers authorized to iTunes.

When away from home, iPhone, iPod touch and iPad users can purchase, rent and download movies and music videos to their devices from the iTunes Store app. Macs and PCs running iTunes -- as well as iPhones, iPads, and the iPod touch -- can also stream music and video to an HDTV-equipped Apple TV. Apple TVs also deliver streaming content from partners like Netflix, Hulu Plus and MLB.tv.

There are also plenty of video-related apps in the Apps Store. Here you can find apps for subscription-based video services -- like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. Many networks, including A&E and HBO, offer access to hit TV shows. From making to watching, if it's video-related, there's probably an app that does what you need.

Google

YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006, has become synonymous with Web-based video, from entertainment produced by big-name studios to homemade clips from less conventional "stars." The site's open setup allows anyone to upload videos and share them with the world, which has resulted in viral videos ranging from silly animals and babies to Psy's Gangnam Style and Justin Bieber. (Yup -- you can blame YouTube for both of those as well.)

In addition, Google Play offers a variety of movies rentals, movie purchases and TV show purchases (full seasons or specific episodes) for streaming or download.

Then there's Google TV. The Android-based television platform allows manufacturers to build Internet-connected devices for the living room, whether they be standalone set-top boxes or fully integrated TV sets. Google TV lets you surf the Web and stream Internet video as well as watch traditional cable or satellite programming, all with Google-enhanced interactivity.

The platform utilizes Google search to let you find content across numerous services. You can also install games and other apps directly from Google Play and control the entire system from any Android phone or tablet.

Despite releases from several major manufacturers, Google TV has thus far remained a niche product with limited mainstream success. At this year's Google I/O developers' conference in May, Google announced a significant new update for the platform. Manufacturers such as Asus, meanwhile, continue to launch new Google TV hardware.

In July, Google launched a $35 media streaming device called the Chromecast. It's essentially a stick that plugs into your TV's HDMI port and lets you play multimedia content using a smartphone, tablet, or computer as a remote control. Currently, the Chromecast provides support for video playback via YouTube, Google Play, and Netflix as well as any site that can be pulled up in the regular Chrome browser.

Microsoft

Xbox Video is Microsoft's video offering and, as with Xbox Music, you don't need an Xbox 360 to use it. It's a video app for Windows 8 and Windows RT (as well as the Xbox 360) and doesn't work on earlier versions of Windows or on Windows Phone. (Users of earlier versions of Windows or of Windows Phone can instead use the Zune software client.) The service is straightforward for-pay --- you can buy or rent videos and TV shows that you watch on those devices. You have the choice of downloading them or streaming them. No physical videos are shipped.

Microsoft says that the service has 200,000 movies and TV shows, but I found its offerings to be quite limited. If you're interested in movies outside current Hollywood movies and popular indie movies, you will find yourself disappointed. For example, it has only a single movie directed by the great French director Francois Truffaut, and that is his American movie Fahrenheit 451. The service doesn't have many of the great older American movies, including classics like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time, or the great comedy You Can't Take it With You. You won't find what many people consider the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The TV selection, though, is better, and had all the popular programs I looked for.

Searching leaves much to be desired. When I searched for You Can't Take it With You, the primary result was, oddly enough, the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. Other results included The Godfather, Inception, The Matrix and Shrek.

The upshot: Xbox Video is fine if your tastes mirror contemporary popular Hollywood fare. But if you want something beyond that, it's not for you. Amazon, in particular, has it beat with its excellent movie and TV selection and with its all-you-can-view Prime video services for a monthly fee.

Shopping

The big ecosystems want your online dollars, not just for traditional forms of entertainment like music, books, games and video, but for whenever you buy anything online. Each wants to be your go-to place for placing orders on the Internet.

Some of their online shopping systems are works in progress, while others are state-of-the-art. Read on to see the winners and losers.

Amazon

The words "Amazon" and "online shopping" have become almost synonymous -- with good reason. Whether you're looking to buy a dress, a power drill, wine, exercise equipment, computers, an air conditioner -- if you want to buy almost anything, you can buy it from Amazon. No other ecosystem comes close to its integrated shopping experience and the massive product availability, with warehouses spread out across the country. The company now even offers same-day delivery on certain items in certain locations through a service called Local Express Delivery.

And the ecosystem includes not just Amazon itself, but many partners, so that when you shop through Amazon you have the option of buying from other companies as well. But even when you buy from partners, the ecosystem stays Amazon's -- you pay for and manage all your purchases through your Amazon account.

Amazon leverages this ecosystem to expand its reach into books and video -- and, in fact, joins its regular shopping service with its streaming service via the Amazon Prime service. Join for $79/year, and you get free two-day shipping on anything you buy, as well as unlimited streaming of movies and TV episodes, and free borrowing from a selection of more than 300,000 e-books through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library service. (Note: The borrowing feature works only on Kindle devices and not on non-Kindle devices that use the Kindle reader app.)

What does all this mean? Simply that Amazon is not just the premier shopping site on the Web, but that the company is using that reach to try and extend its domination of books and online video as well.

Apple

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