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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Gaming

Unless you're a hard-core gamer or industry-watcher, you might not know that gaming is a big business -- a very big business. Microsoft estimates that $65 billion is spent annually on gaming: $27 billion on console-based gaming, $12 billion on PC-based gaming, $10 billion on mobile and tablet gaming, $8 billion on social networking/browser-based gaming and $8 billion on handheld device-based gaming. Who's strongest in which category? Which ecosystem is best positioned for the future?

Amazon
Amazon logo

Amazon's gaming strategy can be summed up in a single sentence: Buy games and gaming hardware from the site. And it must be admitted that the selection, like everything else at Amazon, is substantial. Name a game and you'll find it; name gaming hardware and you'll find it. You can buy not just boxed games, but downloadable ones as well.

Unlike Microsoft, Amazon doesn't have a gaming hardware platform. Certainly, the Kindle -- one of the very few hardware devices that bears Amazon's imprimatur -- isn't highly powered enough to be a true gaming platform like Microsoft's Xbox. And because the Kindle app store is a closed store, curated by Amazon, the selection of Android games you can download and play on it are limited compared to what you can get on other Android devices via Google Play.

In short, Amazon doesn't really have what can be called a gaming ecosystem. Instead, it sells game-related hardware and software, and lets you play a selection of games on the Kindle. Overall, this is Amazon's weakest part of its entertainment ecosystem.

Apple
Apple logo

Of the 850,000-plus apps currently in the App Store, over 144,000 titles are dedicated to gaming (this figure includes "lite" versions and demos). The number of games isn't indicative of quality, of course, but one can't deny that iOS has been a launching platform for some really great games, both casual and immersive.

Every genre is catered for with the staggering amount of games available. From Tetris to Minecraft, from Grand Theft Auto to Poker, from CSR Racing to Letterpress to Injustice: Gods Among Us, there's a game in the App Store for everyone.

The breadth of games available has spurned an interesting side effect, and that is a plethora of third-party gaming accessories. There are wireless controllers, steering wheels and joysticks; device cases with controllers built in; classic board games like Monopoly that utilize iOS devices to add another level of interactivity; as well as model helicopters, drones and vehicles that can be operated by iOS devices.

Of course, all that has to do with mobile iOS gaming, where Apple has had considerable success. But when it comes to desktop-based gaming, things haven't as gone well, where the Windows PC is the standard. And Apple doesn't have a console to compete against Microsoft's Xbox, either.

Google
Google logo

Google's entertainment ecosystem boasts what's arguably the most diverse hardware selection of any single platform. The reason: Android is an open-source platform and that means -- for better and sometimes for worse -- that manufacturers can use the software in any device imaginable and modify it in any way they wish.

While Google itself doesn't have a presence in console gaming, a number of manufacturers offer Android-based devices made explicitly for the purposes of entertainment. Sony's Xperia Play phone, for instance, combines a traditional Android smartphone with a console-like game controller for on-the-go play. Nvidia, meanwhile, is currently working on a portable Android gaming device known as Project Shield -- essentially an Xbox-like controller with a high-definition display. It'll be able to play console-quality games from Google Play as well as PC games from a shared Wi-Fi connection.

The common thread linking these devices and the more traditional Android smartphones and tablets is their access to the Google Play Store, which -- as part of its app collection -- offers a large collection of downloadable games for users. Titles range from puzzle and casino games to sports, arcade, and action experiences. Top-selling titles include games like Minecraft, Need for Speed, Plants vs. Zombies, Fruit Ninja and Sonic the Hedgehog.

In May, Google launched a centralized gaming framework called Google Play Game Services. It allows developers to tap into a universal network in order to provide users with the ability to save their games cross-device and cross-platform, as well take advantage of a multiplayer communication system complete with game play invitations, achievement tracking and leaderboards. The platform had 32 games on board at the time of its launch; Google expects more developers to integrate the framework into their titles.

Microsoft
MS logo

Microsoft's gaming ecosystem is by far the richest and most comprehensive of its competitors, anchored by the best-selling Xbox 360 game console. The Xbox 360 has been the best-selling gaming console for more than two years, according to research firm NPD, which said that in January 2013, the Xbox had 44% of all console sales.

Every single one of the top ten selling games for that month was available on the Xbox, and one of them, Halo 4 (published by Microsoft Studios), was available only for the Xbox. The Xbox Live service lets you play games online against others, and also lets you watch TV and movies.

In fact, Microsoft has spent considerable effort turning its Xbox 360 gaming platform into a well-integrated ecosystem, although it's still a work in progress. You can connect from a Windows 8 device to your Xbox 360, and see your gaming history, download games to the Xbox 360, customize your Xbox Live profile and avatar and more. And there's a free Windows 8 and Windows Phone SmartGlass app you can download that works as a remote control for the Xbox 360. It also displays information about what you're playing or watching on your phone or Windows 8 device. However, you can't actually play the games on the Windows 8 device or Windows Phone. Instead, the game will play on your TV, as you normally do with the Xbox 360.

Xbox One
The Xbox One's new architecture is a combination of Xbox and the Windows kernel, and it has a new, faster processor, a Blu-ray Disc drive, 500GB hard-disk drive and Wi-Fi Direct.

All that is just a prelude to Microsoft's plans for the next generation of the Xbox, called Xbox One. Microsoft's goal is no less than using the Xbox to be the centerpiece of nearly the entire entertainment ecosystem in people's homes. The Xbox One's new architecture is a combination of Xbox and the Windows kernel, and it has a new, faster processor, a Blu-ray Disc drive, 500GB hard-disk drive and Wi-Fi Direct.

It will control your television set and cable TV, and is designed to move easily between gaming and TV watching. It will run Hulu, Netflix and other streaming video services; will play CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs; will come complete with Kinect (see explanation in the next paragraph), and will work with Windows 8 devices such as tablets and smartphones. These new capabilities come with a price tag to match: The Xbox One is expected to ship in November, and will sell for $500 (compared to $200 for the existing Xbox).

Microsoft has other gaming resources outside of the Xbox. Kinect lets you play games on the Xbox without a controller -- sensors let you control and play games using your hands, body and voice. Windows is itself a big game platform. And Windows Phone also offers gaming, although because its app ecosystem isn't as rich as for iOS or Android, you'll find fewer games available for it than for its competitors.

The company has also a number of game software megahits, notably the Age of Empires, and especially the Halo series.

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