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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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.

Amazon
Amazon logo

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.

Apple
Apple logo

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.

Apple Mac

Apple's Macintosh was the first mass market computer to ship with a graphical user interface and mouse. (Attribution: http://www.allaboutapple.com/)

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
Google logo

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."

Microsoft
MS logo

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% compatible with the IBM PC.

A YouTube video of Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0.

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.

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