There are plenty of ways to shop within the Apple ecosystem, especially (and most conveniently) using the iPhone or iPad. While using the built-in iOS browser, Safari, to access virtual storefronts is an option, the App Store features dedicated applications for such a purpose. There are many apps that allow you to shop your favorite retail locations; some of the more popular retailers in the App Store include Amazon, Target and WalMart, among others.
In addition, many restaurant chains have dedicated apps for ordering food. Apps like Dominos and Papa John's allow you to place orders and post payments from your device, as well as track your current order, look up past favorites and enroll in rewards programs.
Some retail locations have implemented iPhone support in interesting ways. For instance, if you have an iPhone, you can launch the Apple Store application (the Apple Store is not the same as the App Store) at any of the 400-plus Apple retail locations, scan the barcode of any product using the iPhone's camera and then pay for the items using your iTunes account. Your receipt is optionally emailed to you. You won't even be stopped at the exit for verification -- in and out of the store, no fuss.
This integration is hitting other stores, as well -- WalMart, for example, is spearheading a "Scan and Go" initiative using iOS devices for its pilot program.
However, while Amazon has its Amazon account and Google has Google Wallet, Apple has no central place you can go to put in your identity and credit card information, and then buy whatever you want. In that, it's like Microsoft -- a comparison that neither company would likely enjoy.
Google Play grew out of the former Android Market, which was essentially an app store for Android-based phones and tablets. As the Market expanded to include more types of content, Google wanted a name that'd fit the broader focus and emphasize the fact that the store wasn't limited just to Android users.
"We believe that with a strong brand, compelling offerings, and a seamless purchasing and consumption experience, Google Play will drive more traffic and revenue to the entire ecosystem," the company said at the time.
Google Play mostly offers apps, books, magazines, music, movies and TV shows. Aside from the apps -- which are specific to Android devices -- the content can be consumed or downloaded on any phone, tablet or PC, regardless of platform, and all purchases are automatically synced and available wherever you sign in. Google Play also sells Google-branded hardware, such as the recently announced updated Nexus 7 tablet.
The Google Wallet service allows users to buy products from a variety of online vendors; they can also make purchases from retail stores using mobile devices equipped with NFC technology. And Google Shopping uses its search capabilities to find products from a wide variety of vendors.
Google is currently testing a same-day delivery service for physical goods from vendors such as Walgreens and Staples; it's called Google Shopping Express. The service is thus far available only to a small number of users in the San Francisco area.
Microsoft has yet to build a cohesive, unified way let users do their shopping online. So for now, it offers two separate ways to shop: Bing's Shopping feature, or Microsoft's nascent Wallet technology. Neither comes close to achieving the kind of unified shopping experience you'll find with Amazon.
When you do a Bing search, Bing decides whether you're likely looking to buy something, and if it believes you are, it includes a Shopping link at the top of the search results page. If you click the Shopping link, you'll be sent to a page of listings that shows you one or more stores that carry the product. From there, you click to get to the store's own site.
If this sounds needlessly complicated, you're right -- it is. And because you're shopping from separate stores, there's no central way to pay, track your purchases, return merchandise and so on. All in all, it's a not particularly useful or satisfactory experience.
As for Microsoft's Wallet technology, for now, it's even less useful than Bing shopping. It's available only for Windows Phone 8 devices, and you likely won't make much use of it yet. You enter information about your credit and debit cards, loyalty cards, coupons and even membership cards (such as for a gym membership or library); you can can then refer to them when you need them. But you can't use the cards in your Wallet to pay at online retail sites other than in the Windows Phone Store.
The exception is if you have a phone with NFC support and your cellphone service provider supports NFC and the Wallet -- and you use a secure SIM card. In that case, you can use the Wallet to make purchases in physical stores. Given how rare NFC payments are, and that not all phones accept secure SIM cards, that means it's unlikely you'll be using the Wallet to make many in-store purchases. If NFC ever catches on, though, there's a chance you'll be able to use Wallet in the future.
There are other media-related services and products beyond music, books, gaming, shopping and video. In this section we look each ecosystem's grab-bag.
We live in a world in which many people are no longer content to only consume media; they want to create as well. Amazon has entered that world in big way. It offers considerable services to the large and growing universe of self-publishers with CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Advantage, a suite of services that help individuals create, distribute and market books.
Amazon is branching out beyond that. CreateSpace also offers tools to help musicians create their own music CDs, which can then be sold on Amazon.com. And musicians can also distribute their music as MP3s on Amazon's music service.
iCloud is the umbrella term Apple uses to describe its online storage and synchronization services. While iCloud offers some upfront features like an email address and the ability to track equipment and friends with Find My iPhone and Find My Friends, respectively, the main feature of iCloud is that it is invisible. With every change made on one device, iCloud silently transfers the data to your other devices, keeping all devices up to date.
iCloud also allows music, video, books and app purchases from iTunes, the App Store and iBookstore on one device to be immediately available for download on other Apple devices. There is an option to have these purchases automatically downloaded to other authorized devices.
Further, iCloud syncs your position in your content -- like books, audiobooks, videos and podcasts -- across your authorized devices. iCloud also works with iBooks to sync bookmarks, notes and other text, automatically.
Like other online services, iCloud has its share of hiccups and is very much a work in progress. While Apple apps like Pages sync through iCloud without issue, many developers are having trouble implementing syncing into their apps the way iCloud is currently designed to work.
Google has developed a separate platform called Chrome OS. Derived from the company's Chrome browser, Chrome OS serves as a lightweight operating system for users who rely primarily on cloud-based services.
The most common products that use the Chrome OS are Chromebooks -- cloud-centric laptops such as the popular $249 Samsung Chromebook and the high-end touch-enabled Chromebook Pixel. These products utilize Web-based applications, many of which can be found in Google's Chrome Web Store.
Numerous games and other entertainment-oriented offerings are also available in that store; content from the Google Play book, music and magazine collections is accessible on the devices as well. However, because of its dependence on the Web, it doesn't offer a platform for games that demand a system-based component (which means most popular PC-based titles).
Although Skype is currently a VoIP and video communications tool, at some point it could play an important role in Microsoft's entertainment ecosystem, most likely in gameplay. Microsoft has been hiring engineers to port Skype to the Xbox 360 and, although Microsoft isn't providing any details about that port, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that Skype could be used for video chat-enabled gaming, or as a way to find gaming partners.
An ecosystem isn't a series of separate, unrelated products and services, but instead an integrated whole. Of course, there's integration and then there's integration, and some ecosystems are more coherent and inter-related than others. In this section we look at how well -- or not-so-well -- each of these four ecosystems is integrated.
In a way, Amazon actually has three connected entertainment ecosystems: one based on the Kindle e-reader, one based on the Kindle Reader app that works with other operating systems and one based on its website. But even though they are three distinct ecosystems, Amazon has done a very good job of knitting them together via a single Amazon account, which lets users buy and manage all of their entertainment. For example, owners of the Kindle Fire e-reader can also access their books via PCs, Macs, iOS and Android devices, and even pick up reading where they left off elsewhere.
In fact, Amazon has taken a device-agnostic approach whenever possible for its entertainment ecosystem. So you can listen to music on the Amazon Cloud Player not only on an Android-based Kindle, but also from other Android devices or by using its Web client on any Web-connected device.
All of Apple's devices work well with each other when used in concert. For example, using the technology called AirPlay, movies and music can be wirelessly beamed to an Apple TV-connected HDTV from an iPad, and the on-screen content can be controlled by any other iOS device in range. Video shot on an iPhone can be imported into the iMovie application on a Mac and edited to music bought from iTunes (or custom songs created in GarageBand), mixed with photos imported from iPhoto and uploaded to any popular hosting service.
A projector-connected MacBook Pro can display a slide presentation, while notes can be read on the iPhone in your hand, which is also being used to control the slides. There are games on the App Store such as Real Racing that use AirPlay to beam the game to your Apple TV-equipped HDTV. This setup displays the race on the TV screen, while simultaneously showing race information -- such as contestant positions on a track map, lap times, etc. -- on an iPad or iPhone, which is also being used to steer the car.
These are only a few examples. There's a reason for the halo effect -- that is, the theory that a satisfied customer will return to purchase another product -- and the logic is simple: Apple products work great separately, but even better together. The integration and the ease of getting things done inspire confidence, which in turn creates loyalty among customers and trust in the brand. This, in turn, adds to more purchases from the Apple ecosystem.
The cross-platform nature of Google's entertainment ecosystem gives the company a key advantage over its competitors: With its cloud-based hub, things really do "just work." You can buy a book or album from Google Play using any Web browser and then immediately access it from any computer, phone or tablet on which you're signed in. You can find a new Android app on the Google Play Web interface and install it wirelessly from there to any of your Android devices. And when you get a new Android device, all of your existing content and settings are automatically applied to it.
With Google's ecosystem, you never have to plug anything in or download cumbersome local programs just to access or manage your stuff; the elements work together seamlessly to keep you connected to your content regardless of where you are or what type of device you're using.
For now, integration of Microsoft's entertainment ecosystem is hit and miss across its sprawling product line. The Xbox 360 sits at the ecosystem's center, and there has been some work done to get it to work in concert with Windows 8 and Windows Phone. But that integration is somewhat basic -- you can't play games on your Xbox 360 from your Windows 8 or Windows Phone device, for example.
That should change in the coming years. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that Microsoft will become a services and devices company, and certainly a cohesive entertainment ecosystem is a key component of that. Expect Windows and Xbox 360 to become its foundations. But that's sometime in the undefined future. For now, Microsoft's media ecosystem is a series of related and occasionally connected services and products, not a cohesive unit.
Each of these four battling ecosystems has distinct strengths and weaknesses; there is clearly no single overarching winner.
When it comes to books, magazines and shopping, Amazon is unparalleled. Although Apple's iBooks can be considered somewhat of a success, it doesn't come close to Amazon's dominance in selling both e-books and print books. And while Google has tried to become an online shopping center (and a bookseller), Amazon's success dwarfs it.