It's Not Just the Hardware

It is strange to use the word “ecosystem” when referring to technology, but this is an increasingly important concept in the post PC era of smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

I admit that most of my personal computing, entertainment, and media consumption is done across Apple’s product line. While most people think of Apple as a hardware company, I have likely spent more on music, apps, and movies with Apple than hardware over the years. Before iTunes, my music library consisted of a manually maintained folder of MP3 files, which WinAMP would occasionally index correctly so I could find a song. Then, Apple brought us iTunes and later, created one of the first, easy to use, legal, online music stores. Fast forward a few years, and now Apple has created an excellent cycle for itself - I should buy my music through iTunes because it will seamlessly show up on all of my devices, and I should buy Apple devices for the same reason. All my “stuff” is easily accessible on my Macbook, iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV with very little planning or thought needed. Just send some cash to Cupertino and all is well.

This became apparent to me when I started using a Nexus 7 tablet recently. This is a nice piece of hardware - very lightweight, feels good in the hands, has OK battery life and a nice screen. It is great for reading and light browsing. However, I’m missing key parts of my technology ecosystem on the 7. My content from Spotify and Kindle came right over, but most of my music is locked away in iTunes and iTunes Match - not easily accessible from the Nexus 7’s Jelly Bean powered OS. Photostream, despite its limitations and flaws, is a great way to get that picture of my son I took yesterday very quickly. Doesn’t happen on the 7.

Apps certainly don’t work cross platform. Thankfully, Instapaper has been ported to Android and works great on the 7. But I’ve yet to find replacements for two other apps key to my daily browsing workflow, Reeder and Tweetbot. There are plenty of alternatives, but as windows to online content, I have yet to find Android equivalents for these and a few more apps I use very regularly on iOS. The included Google Reader client is OK, and between Plume and Tweetcaster, I can get by on Twitter. Neither of these options though are as fluid and easy to use as their iOS (distant) cousins.

This is not an argument that iOS is better than Android. I’m sure I would feel the same way if my ecosystem was built up on the Android platform over the years. Instead of my Nexus 7 being a useless slab of silicon and glass next to my Apple TV, I would show off photos and watch Youtube on my Nexus Q connected to my TV.

In the ancient past, we’d have similar discussions about Mac vs Windows. That has largely disappeared in favor of iOS vs Android. But its no longer just about software - content itself doesn’t flow as neatly between platforms. iCloud has extended Apple’s ability to provide a nice service that conveniently works across all hardware that features an Apple logo - and no other.

What I find interesting is the services that are bridging the gap. Amazon announced a new lineup of tablets last week. I have the original Kindle Fire, and while it makes an OK ebook reader, it makes a horrible tablet. Even so, I purchased a few paid apps from the Amazon app store - something I have yet to do in the Google Play store. Why?

Amazon has generally kept itself fairly agnostic in this race. Yes, the Kindle Fire lineup runs on an Android base, but Amazon has overhauled and customized the software and interface to make its own. And since Amazon seems to be more interested in selling the content vs. the hardware (thus far at least), the apps I purchased for my Kindle Fire came right over to my Nexus 7. Similarly, my Kindle ebooks show up equally well on my Kindle hardware, iPad, Nexus 7, Mac, and nearly any other device I can think of. Even better, Amazon’s whispersync platform keeps everything in sync across all of them. I can now view Amazon instant video on my iPad, and the Amazon MP3 platform is available on all platforms and now has the same features. None of these kind of features is available cross platform with Apple iBooks or Google Play.

I’m more comfortable buying content from Amazon, because I know it will work on their hardware as well as other hardware I’m likely to buy in the future. This is a huge advantage to Amazon in that households with iPads can buy a Kindle Fire as a “second tablet” and be able to share the content (somewhat) between the two platforms. If you stick exclusively with Google Play or iTunes, you are also largely tied to their respective hardware platforms.

Lastly, content lasts a lot longer than hardware. I have every piece of music I’ve acquired since the 90’s in my iTunes library, but it would be hard for me to find a piece of hardware of mine still in operation since that time. Does this mean I can never buy a non-Apple device? No, but for now, I can be certain that a rumored iPad mini will be tons more useful in my ecosystem than the Nexus 7. As long as that cycle continues, I’m sure me and many others will continue sending business to Apple.