Editorial: The rise of ecosystems and the fall of consumer choice
This past year, the concept of the ecosystem in relation to smartphones and mobile platforms has been bandied around so much that we have pretty much grown tired of hearing the word “ecosystem”. 6 years ago, none of us really thought that a smartphone would need a vast, high-quality library of third-party apps as well as a suite of supporting cloud-centric services to even have a shot at success. 7 years ago, the best smartphone on the market was the phone that packed the most advanced hardware under the hood – in an age where “convergence” was the big buzzword, the more capable a smartphone was at replacing single-purpose devices like cameras and MP3 players, the more highly-regarded it was. The focus was very much on functionality rather than experiences, and the Internet was still something that a smartphone user would voluntarily enter and exit, much like dial-up Internet access in the 90s and early 00s.
[quote_left]Ecosystem lock-in keeps users invested in a platform[/quote_left]A trend that has emerged across today’s smartphone platforms is the fact that the companies behind them see ecosystem lock-in as a strategy to keep the vast majority of users invested in a particular platform, be it iOS, Android or Windows Phone. It’s not just about having to purchase the equivalents of all the apps that one has already paid for when switching from iOS to Android for instance; that is a reasonable consequence of making the switch. It’s also about companies making it more challenging to use third-party online services on these smartphone platforms while simultaneously pushing their own services, and/or ensuring that it is difficult for a user to access data stored in one company’s cloud service on another company’s smartphone platform.
Concrete examples of such actions include Google’s decision to discontinue support of Exchange ActiveSync on non-Google Apps accounts after January 30th of next year. While Google is certainly entitled to do this and the decision is probably made for business reasons, anyone migrating from an Android device to a Windows Phone device after the deadline would find it virtually impossible to access his/her contacts and calendar data stored on Google’s services and be forced to migrate that data to Outlook and put up with a subpar Gmail experience, unless Microsoft adopts the open CalDAV and CardDAV protocols that Apple’s iOS already supports for contacts and calendar synchronization.
[quote_right]“So if you want a better email, especially on your phone or tablet, it’s time to join the millions who have already made the choice to upgrade to Outlook.com”[/quote_right]More concrete examples, this time on Microsoft’s side of the fence, include the fact that on Windows Phone, the hardware Search button cannot be reconfigured to anything other than the Bing app, using the built-in Twitter photo sharing feature means that your photo is uploaded to SkyDrive (a fact that has been immensely annoying to me this week) and there’s no way to upload photos and video to Picasa, YouTube or even Flickr respectively, out of the box. In addition, Microsoft’s response to Google’s discontinuation of Exchange ActiveSync support basically recommends that people switch to Outlook, because people clearly should change their email address, move their contacts and stop using Google Calendar for the sake of their choice of smartphone. There’s also the fact that switching to Windows Phone pretty much means giving up Google services as a whole because high-quality third-party apps for services like Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Talk and Google+ are either non-existent or require payment. At this point, there isn’t even a really good Dropbox app on Windows Phone, be it official or third-party.
[quote_left]In the end, the users lose and Windows Phone, well, remains a less appealing option[/quote_left]You could argue that some of the above is not really Microsoft’s fault; the onus is on third-party developers and companies like Google and Dropbox to build their offerings for Windows Phone. Google has indeed stated that they have no intention of investing resources in building additional apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. However, at the end of the day, it is the users who lose out regardless of whose fault it is, and it is Microsoft who is affected by the fact that Google’s services, which are by far the best in the business as far as I’m concerned, are so poorly supported on Windows Phone. Regardless of whether there are people who don’t use Gmail or aren’t invested in Google’s ecosystem, there is an enormous number of people who do use Gmail and are invested in Google’s ecosystem, and perhaps would not mind giving a Windows Phone device a shot if they could continue using the services they already use on their shiny new phone without feeling like their experience is compromised at best.
[quote_right]Don’t want to use iCloud? Turn it off[/quote_right]It’s hard to ignore the possibility that Microsoft could get the likes of Google and Dropbox on board with Windows Phone through a deal or a partnership if they really had the intention to, but the company remains steadfast in pushing its own service layer on both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Google has shown that it is not averse to building apps for its services on a platform like iOS, and their recent efforts are by no means half-hearted; Google Maps for iOS is genuinely good, as is their updated Google+ app; the official YouTube app is decent, as is Google Drive for iOS. In fact, Apple ironically deserves praise for the way the company has handled their service offerings; iCloud and iMessage are completely optional and can be disabled outright. In addition, the afore-mentioned discontinuation of Exchange ActiveSync support is a non-issue on iOS.
I have been using the Nokia N9 as my daily driver for the past 2 weeks, and right out of the box I can get my email on Gmail pushed to my device, access my Google calendar data, chat and make voice calls on Google Talk (video calls are enabled with a plugin), chat and make voice calls over Skype (long before the company was bought by Microsoft), perform direct uploads to Picasa, Flickr and YouTube and do a Google search in the browser without changing any settings. Much of that is not possible with a Windows Phone device out of the box, and I wonder if Microsoft will ever realize that from a consumer-centric viewpoint, catering to users’ needs ought to be more important than relentlessly pushing people to use Bing, Bing Maps, Outlook, SkyDrive and Office.
Why should one’s choice of smartphone affect the cloud services that he/she uses? Personally, I would rather not use a Windows Phone than switch away from Google’s services.
Are closed ecosystems and non-interoperable services really a positive step towards the future? As we move into 2013, we hope the answers will become clearer.