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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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.

Amazon
Amazon logo

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% of the e-book market and an estimated 25% 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.

Amazon books
Amazon is the world's largest book retailer. It's the foundation upon which the entire Amazon empire was built.

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
Apple logo

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.)

On the other hand, Apple is having some trouble with the government for alleged antitrust actions having to do with e-books: A year ago, the U.S. Justice Department charged that Apple spearheaded a scheme with book publishers to keep the prices of e-books artificially high; on July 10, Apple was found guilty of violating antitrust laws. As of this writing, it was not clear whether the outcome would affect the pricing of Apple's e-books or, ultimately, its market share in the long term.

Google
Google logo

The Google Play Store has robust sections devoted to book- and magazine-based content. Following the cross-platform model, titles purchased from the Play Store are automatically synced across all devices and can be read on any Android phone or tablet as well as on any other Web-connected device.

Google also has a separate service named -- somewhat confusingly -- Google Books. That service allows you to search for content within actual books and magazines and to read excerpts or full text of some titles. Google Books has been the subject of much controversy within the publishing world because of the complex rights issues related to Google's scanning of older print editions.

Microsoft
MS logo

If you're looking to buy magazines and books, Microsoft's isn't the ecosystem to go to. This is especially surprising, given that the company invested $300 million in the Nook business, which is built on book and magazine purchasing.

That being said, there is a Microsoft place to go to buy books and magazines: the Windows Store on Windows 8 or on a Windows Phone device. There you'll find a relatively small selection of books and book-related apps, and newspapers and magazines and related apps. So you can buy Dr. Seuss books for your kids, for example, or a variety of dictionaries. But there are very few offerings -- the entire Books & Reference section in the Windows Store, when I last checked, was 1,666 apps and books. For magazines, check the News & Weather section. Again, though, the pickings are slim -- 1,019 apps, and the vast majority of them area news-related apps rather than actual magazines.

You can, of course, download various e-reader apps such as the Kindle or Nook for your computer, tablet or phone, and buy books from Amazon and from Barnes & Noble. But that's really just tapping into someone else's ecosystem, not making use of Microsoft's.

In short, Microsoft falls well behind all of its competitors when it comes to buying magazines and books.

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