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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Shopping

The big ecosystems want your online dollars, not just for traditional forms of entertainment like music, books, games and video, but for whenever you buy anything online. Each wants to be your go-to place for placing orders on the Internet.

Some of their online shopping systems are works in progress, while others are state-of-the-art. Read on to see the winners and losers.

Amazon
Amazon logo

The words "Amazon" and "online shopping" have become almost synonymous -- with good reason. Whether you're looking to buy a dress, a power drill, wine, exercise equipment, computers, an air conditioner -- if you want to buy almost anything, you can buy it from Amazon. No other ecosystem comes close to its integrated shopping experience and the massive product availability, with warehouses spread out across the country. The company now even offers same-day delivery on certain items in certain locations through a service called Local Express Delivery.

And the ecosystem includes not just Amazon itself, but many partners, so that when you shop through Amazon you have the option of buying from other companies as well. But even when you buy from partners, the ecosystem stays Amazon's -- you pay for and manage all your purchases through your Amazon account.

Amazon leverages this ecosystem to expand its reach into books and video -- and, in fact, joins its regular shopping service with its streaming service via the Amazon Prime service. Join for $79/year, and you get free two-day shipping on anything you buy, as well as unlimited streaming of movies and TV episodes, and free borrowing from a selection of more than 300,000 e-books through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library service. (Note: The borrowing feature works only on Kindle devices and not on non-Kindle devices that use the Kindle reader app.)

What does all this mean? Simply that Amazon is not just the premier shopping site on the Web, but that the company is using that reach to try and extend its domination of books and online video as well.

Apple
Apple logo

There are plenty of ways to shop within the Apple ecosystem, especially (and most conveniently) using the iPhone or iPad. While using the built-in iOS browser, Safari, to access virtual storefronts is an option, the App Store features dedicated applications for such a purpose. There are many apps that allow you to shop your favorite retail locations; some of the more popular retailers in the App Store include Amazon, Target and WalMart, among others.

In addition, many restaurant chains have dedicated apps for ordering food. Apps like Dominos and Papa John's allow you to place orders and post payments from your device, as well as track your current order, look up past favorites and enroll in rewards programs.

Some retail locations have implemented iPhone support in interesting ways. For instance, if you have an iPhone, you can launch the Apple Store application (the Apple Store is not the same as the App Store) at any of the 400-plus Apple retail locations, scan the barcode of any product using the iPhone's camera and then pay for the items using your iTunes account. Your receipt is optionally emailed to you. You won't even be stopped at the exit for verification -- in and out of the store, no fuss.

This integration is hitting other stores, as well -- WalMart, for example, is spearheading a "Scan and Go" initiative using iOS devices for its pilot program.

However, while Amazon has its Amazon account and Google has Google Wallet, Apple has no central place you can go to put in your identity and credit card information, and then buy whatever you want. In that, it's like Microsoft -- a comparison that neither company would likely enjoy.

Google
Google logo

Google Play grew out of the former Android Market, which was essentially an app store for Android-based phones and tablets. As the Market expanded to include more types of content, Google wanted a name that'd fit the broader focus and emphasize the fact that the store wasn't limited just to Android users.

"We believe that with a strong brand, compelling offerings, and a seamless purchasing and consumption experience, Google Play will drive more traffic and revenue to the entire ecosystem," the company said at the time.

Google Play mostly offers apps, books, magazines, music, movies and TV shows. Aside from the apps -- which are specific to Android devices -- the content can be consumed or downloaded on any phone, tablet or PC, regardless of platform, and all purchases are automatically synced and available wherever you sign in. Google Play also sells Google-branded hardware, such as the recently announced updated Nexus 7 tablet.

The Google Wallet service allows users to buy products from a variety of online vendors; they can also make purchases from retail stores using mobile devices equipped with NFC technology. And Google Shopping uses its search capabilities to find products from a wide variety of vendors.

Google is currently testing a same-day delivery service for physical goods from vendors such as Walgreens and Staples; it's called Google Shopping Express. The service is thus far available only to a small number of users in the San Francisco area.

Microsoft
MS logo

Microsoft has yet to build a cohesive, unified way let users do their shopping online. So for now, it offers two separate ways to shop: Bing's Shopping feature, or Microsoft's nascent Wallet technology. Neither comes close to achieving the kind of unified shopping experience you'll find with Amazon.

When you do a Bing search, Bing decides whether you're likely looking to buy something, and if it believes you are, it includes a Shopping link at the top of the search results page. If you click the Shopping link, you'll be sent to a page of listings that shows you one or more stores that carry the product. From there, you click to get to the store's own site.

If this sounds needlessly complicated, you're right -- it is. And because you're shopping from separate stores, there's no central way to pay, track your purchases, return merchandise and so on. All in all, it's a not particularly useful or satisfactory experience.

As for Microsoft's Wallet technology, for now, it's even less useful than Bing shopping. It's available only for Windows Phone 8 devices, and you likely won't make much use of it yet. You enter information about your credit and debit cards, loyalty cards, coupons and even membership cards (such as for a gym membership or library); you can can then refer to them when you need them. But you can't use the cards in your Wallet to pay at online retail sites other than in the Windows Phone Store.

The exception is if you have a phone with NFC support and your cellphone service provider supports NFC and the Wallet -- and you use a secure SIM card. In that case, you can use the Wallet to make purchases in physical stores. Given how rare NFC payments are, and that not all phones accept secure SIM cards, that means it's unlikely you'll be using the Wallet to make many in-store purchases. If NFC ever catches on, though, there's a chance you'll be able to use Wallet in the future.

Finally, if you're in a brick-and-mortar mood, you can actually go to one of a several Microsoft Stores. However, they are very far from being as ubiquitous as the Apple Store.

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