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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Integration

An ecosystem isn't a series of separate, unrelated products and services, but instead an integrated whole. Of course, there's integration and then there's integration, and some ecosystems are more coherent and inter-related than others. In this section we look at how well -- or not-so-well -- each of these four ecosystems is integrated.

Amazon logo

In a way, Amazon actually has three connected entertainment ecosystems: one based on the Kindle e-reader, one based on the Kindle Reader app that works with other operating systems and one based on its website. But even though they are three distinct ecosystems, Amazon has done a very good job of knitting them together via a single Amazon account, which lets users buy and manage all of their entertainment. For example, owners of the Kindle Fire e-reader can also access their books via PCs, Macs, iOS and Android devices, and even pick up reading where they left off elsewhere.

In fact, Amazon has taken a device-agnostic approach whenever possible for its entertainment ecosystem. So you can listen to music on the Amazon Cloud Player not only on an Android-based Kindle, but also from other Android devices or by using its Web client on any Web-connected device.

Apple
Apple logo

All of Apple's devices work well with each other when used in concert. For example, using the technology called AirPlay, movies and music can be wirelessly beamed to an Apple TV-connected HDTV from an iPad, and the on-screen content can be controlled by any other iOS device in range. Video shot on an iPhone can be imported into the iMovie application on a Mac and edited to music bought from iTunes (or custom songs created in GarageBand), mixed with photos imported from iPhoto and uploaded to any popular hosting service.

A projector-connected MacBook Pro can display a slide presentation, while notes can be read on the iPhone in your hand, which is also being used to control the slides. There are games on the App Store such as Real Racing that use AirPlay to beam the game to your Apple TV-equipped HDTV. This setup displays the race on the TV screen, while simultaneously showing race information -- such as contestant positions on a track map, lap times, etc. -- on an iPad or iPhone, which is also being used to steer the car.

These are only a few examples. There's a reason for the halo effect -- that is, the theory that a satisfied customer will return to purchase another product -- and the logic is simple: Apple products work great separately, but even better together. The integration and the ease of getting things done inspire confidence, which in turn creates loyalty among customers and trust in the brand. This, in turn, adds to more purchases from the Apple ecosystem.

Google
Google logo

The cross-platform nature of Google's entertainment ecosystem gives the company a key advantage over its competitors: With its cloud-based hub, things really do "just work." You can buy a book or album from Google Play using any Web browser and then immediately access it from any computer, phone or tablet on which you're signed in. You can find a new Android app on the Google Play Web interface and install it wirelessly from there to any of your Android devices. And when you get a new Android device, all of your existing content and settings are automatically applied to it.

With Google's ecosystem, you never have to plug anything in or download cumbersome local programs just to access or manage your stuff; the elements work together seamlessly to keep you connected to your content regardless of where you are or what type of device you're using.

Microsoft
MS logo

For now, integration of Microsoft's entertainment ecosystem is hit and miss across its sprawling product line. The Xbox 360 sits at the ecosystem's center, and there has been some work done to get it to work in concert with Windows 8 and Windows Phone. But that integration is somewhat basic -- you can't play games on your Xbox 360 from your Windows 8 or Windows Phone device, for example.

That should change in the coming years. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that Microsoft will become a services and devices company, and certainly a cohesive entertainment ecosystem is a key component of that. Expect Windows and Xbox 360 to become its foundations. But that's sometime in the undefined future. For now, Microsoft's media ecosystem is a series of related and occasionally connected services and products, not a cohesive unit.

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