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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Video

Video, like digital music, is in the midst of a historic transition. Plenty of people still buy or rent DVDs, but there's no doubt that the future of video is in streaming services. At the moment, Netflix is dominant in this space, but each of the big computing ecosystems we examine here is trying to make gains as well. In this section we look at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Amazon
Amazon logo

Amazon doesn't have a stranglehold on video like it does on books, but still, the video portion of its entertainment ecosystem is substantial and growing. As with everything else at Amazon, there's a tremendously large collection of videos and TV shows to buy as DVDs. There's an excellent selection of classic movies, foreign movies and independent movies. So if you're looking for popular Hollywood movies, old classics or for movies of directors such as the Polish-born Krzysztof Kieslowski, you'll likely find what you want.

Amazon has moved beyond physically delivering movies, and is pushing its Instant Video service, which lets you stream from a selection of 140,000 videos on a pay-per-play basis, as well as its Amazon Prime Instant Video, which lets you stream as many of them as you want as part of a $79/year Prime subscription. You can watch on a variety of devices, including the Kindle HD.

There's more as well. Following Netflix's lead, Amazon is producing its own TV shows as a way to draw people to its streaming video service. A half-dozen have already been announced, and they're not going to be low-budget, no-name affairs. Pulitzer Prize-winning Garry Trudeau is writing one of them (a comedy called Alpha House), another is being written by Big Bang Theory actors Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie, and another will be a satirical comedy about the news by The Onion.

Apple
Apple logo

The iTunes Store offers movies in 109 countries, and there are over 60,000 titles available. Selection varies by region. In the United States, iTunes accounted for 65% of feature-length movie downloads, and 67% of TV shows sold in 2012, according to NPD.

Videos are generally available on iTunes the day they are released to DVD. Many titles come with iTunes Extras, which can include interactive features, images and other bonus materials. You can also rent movies; rentals must be played within 30 days, and you have only 24 hours to finish once you begin watching.

Videos come with DRM encoded into the file, but the DRM-restricted content can be shared among up to five computers. iTunes allows an unlimited number of iOS devices to carry the content as long as they're synced up to any one of the five computers authorized to iTunes.

When away from home, iPhone, iPod touch and iPad users can purchase, rent and download movies and music videos to their devices from the iTunes Store app. Macs and PCs running iTunes -- as well as iPhones, iPads, and the iPod touch -- can also stream music and video to an HDTV-equipped Apple TV. Apple TVs also deliver streaming content from partners like Netflix, Hulu Plus and MLB.tv.

There are also plenty of video-related apps in the Apps Store. Here you can find apps for subscription-based video services -- like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. Many networks, including A&E and HBO, offer access to hit TV shows. From making to watching, if it's video-related, there's probably an app that does what you need.

Google
Google logo

YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006, has become synonymous with Web-based video, from entertainment produced by big-name studios to homemade clips from less conventional "stars." The site's open setup allows anyone to upload videos and share them with the world, which has resulted in viral videos ranging from silly animals and babies to Psy's Gangnam Style and Justin Bieber. (Yup -- you can blame YouTube for both of those as well.)

In addition, Google Play offers a variety of movies rentals, movie purchases and TV show purchases (full seasons or specific episodes) for streaming or download.

iTunes
YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006, has become synonymous with Web-based video.

Then there's Google TV. The Android-based television platform allows manufacturers to build Internet-connected devices for the living room, whether they be standalone set-top boxes or fully integrated TV sets. Google TV lets you surf the Web and stream Internet video as well as watch traditional cable or satellite programming, all with Google-enhanced interactivity.

The platform utilizes Google search to let you find content across numerous services. You can also install games and other apps directly from Google Play and control the entire system from any Android phone or tablet.

Despite releases from several major manufacturers, Google TV has thus far remained a niche product with limited mainstream success. At this year's Google I/O developers' conference in May, Google announced a significant new update for the platform. Manufacturers such as Asus, meanwhile, continue to launch new Google TV hardware.

In July, Google launched a $35 media streaming device called the Chromecast. It's essentially a stick that plugs into your TV's HDMI port and lets you play multimedia content using a smartphone, tablet or computer as a remote control. Currently, the Chromecast provides support for video playback via YouTube, Google Play and Netflix as well as any site that can be pulled up in the regular Chrome browser.

Microsoft
MS logo

Xbox Video is Microsoft's video offering and, as with Xbox Music, you don't need an Xbox 360 to use it. It's a video app for Windows 8 and Windows RT (as well as the Xbox 360) and doesn't work on earlier versions of Windows or on Windows Phone. (Users of earlier versions of Windows or of Windows Phone can instead use the Zune software client.) The service is straightforward for-pay --- you can buy or rent videos and TV shows that you watch on those devices. You have the choice of downloading them or streaming them. No physical videos are shipped.

Microsoft says that the service has 200,000 movies and TV shows, but I found its offerings to be quite limited. If you're interested in movies outside current Hollywood movies and popular indie movies, you will find yourself disappointed. For example, it has only a single movie directed by the great French director Francois Truffaut, and that is his American movie Fahrenheit 451. The service doesn't have many of the great older American movies, including classics like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time, or the great comedy You Can't Take it With You. You won't find what many people consider the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The TV selection, though, is better, and had all the popular programs I looked for.

Searching leaves much to be desired. When I searched for You Can't Take it With You, the primary result was, oddly enough, the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. Other results included The Godfather, Inception, The Matrix and Shrek.

The upshot: Xbox Video is fine if your tastes mirror contemporary popular Hollywood fare. But if you want something beyond that, it's not for you. Amazon, in particular, has it beat with its excellent movie and TV selection and with its all-you-can-view Prime video services for a monthly fee.

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