There was once a time when the business of consumer technology was conducted with tangible goods. You bought a thing, whether it was a Sony VCR or a Sega console, you carried it home amidst a hormonal high of hunter-gatherer instinct, and you prayed to the electro-deities that it wouldn't lose whatever format war it was engaged in. Adding functionality to your purchase was done in the same way. You returned to the store, picked up cartridges, cassettes, or discs, and inserted them into the appropriate receptacle.
That overriding paradigm hasn't actually changed in modern times, even as the devices themselves have grown exponentially more versatile. Your choice of hardware still matters in determining what you can and can't access, though the competition among companies is increasingly moving to the software and services realm. The physical format wars of yesteryear have naturally morphed into contests between various online services, whose growing multitude has been handily summarized by the term "ecosystem." And the thing about ecosystems is that every big shot in the technology world has one.
The pitch is as simple as it is universal: you only need one account (with us!) and you'll have all your digital needs taken care of. That's the goal Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Sony — to varying degrees and using strikingly divergent strategies — are all trying to accomplish. As a group, they're just a selection of the vast hordes of service providers looking to expand their ecosystems and monopolize your time (see the efforts of Evernote, Spotify, and Zynga), but they're also the only ones big and influential enough to actually fulfill that aspiration.
My aim today will be to compare, in terms of features and approach, the "access-everything" accounts on offer from those six biggest companies. Does Google+ let you do more than Facebook? Can the Sony Entertainment Network match wits with Microsoft's Live services? Let's find out.
Movies and music
A googol of options
Everyone's portfolio has gaps, but there are new licensing deals being signed every day
Entertainment has been big business pretty much since the dawn of man, and its two dominant forms today are film and music. If you can furnish people with easy access to their favorite songs, movies, and TV programs, you're halfway home to having a respectable ecosystem.
Apple stole a march on the competition early last decade with its introduction of the iTunes music store. Digital music distribution up to that point had been conducted almost entirely via illegal file sharing and people hadn't yet become accustomed to paying for downloads. iTunes, buoyed by the phenomenally popular iPod, was the one big-name platform to succeed in cracking that market, and everyone has been catching up ever since.
Amazon's MP3 store emulates iTunes with a web-based interface — eschewing the need for dedicated software — and throws in its own Cloud Player app that will store and stream 5GB of your music to Windows and Android devices. Google Music does pretty much the same thing, swapping the 5GB cloud storage limit for a cap of 20,000 tracks, though its big shortcoming at the moment is that it's limited to just the United States. Apple has no cost-free countermeasure to these budding cloud music services, with its iTunes Match requiring a $25 annual fee to synchronize your music collection across devices. It may be worth it for people with a huge library of music, but then Amazon undercuts that price with a $20 per year service that provides unlimited cloud storage for AAC and MP3 files plus 20GB of general-purpose online backup. Among these three similar services, Amazon has the lead in value and accessibility, but Apple clearly has a lot of user inertia built up from its earlier dominance of the market.
Microsoft and Sony tread a different path. The Zune Marketplace charges a flat $9.99 monthly fee and then gives you unlimited access to all the licensed music and music videos at Microsoft's disposal. You can consume that content on your PC, Xbox 360 console, or Windows Phone handset. Sony matches the monthly cost of the Zune Music Pass with its own Music Unlimited subscription service, which offers a significantly better compatibility list: PlayStation 3, Bravia TVs and Blu-ray players, Walkman PMPs, Android devices, and, soon, iOS devices too. That and there's a cut-price $3.99 Basic monthly subscription option, though it performs a function more similar to iTunes Match — allowing you to only play music you already have in your Music Unlimited collection. Zune has greater flexibility, by virtue of allowing you to buy music as well as "rent" it via the monthly subscription, but Sony's cross-platform strategy gives Music Unlimited the edge in terms of accessibility.
Facebook doesn't have a music service of its own, but its recent efforts to plug into as many popular services as possible have meant that it doesn't really need one. You can stream Spotify, Last.fm, MOG, and Rdio content using only your Facebook credentials, although the latter are US-only services for now. In any case, the crown jewel for Facebook is Spotify, which has one of the richest choices of tracks around and will play up to 10 hours of ad-supported music for free each month (this limit's been removed in the US as an enticement to attract new customers). Its $4.99 subscription option nixes the ads and the playback limits, while a $9.99 Premium tier adds offline and mobile playback and thus squares off against Microsoft and Sony's similar offerings. Spotify arguably outdoes the pair thanks to its richer community participation and universal availability (there are apps for the iPhone and iPod touch, Android phones, BlackBerry, Palm phones, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone, and yes, even Symbian).
Film and TV
Facebook's strategy of partnering with category leaders is repeated on the movie front, where it has arranged a deal with Netflix to allow Facebook Connect access to the film streaming service. Unfortunately, that only works outside the US due to the Video Privacy Protect Act of 1988, which prohibits video rental companies from disclosing personally identifiable information about their users. Netflix has pushed for an amendment of that law, but for the moment it remains without proper Facebook Connect functionality in its biggest market. This hitch exposes the rather flimsy underpinnings of Facebook's still nascent ecosystem: relying on other companies for the provision of content inevitably places the social network's services at the mercy of extrinsic forces. What happens if Spotify or Netflix cease to be independent and get gobbled up by the likes of Google? And the corollary of that, what will Facebook do in instances where the market leader in a certain field is actually owned by a direct competitor? Those questions will have to be answered by the company in the (relatively near) future, but at least for now, if you're living in the UK, opting for Facebook saves you from having to create separate accounts and credentials for the two best streaming services.
The choice of suppliers is about as wide as the choice of content
You'll also find Netflix available on the Apple TV, Google TV, Xbox 360, PS3, and yes, even the Kindle Fire, all devices that are less ambitious about sharing your every waking activity and therefore not troubled by the same hurdles as Facebook. The two consoles on that list are your best bet for getting the latest streaming content to your nearest HDTV, with the Xbox 360 recently augmenting the Zune Video Marketplace with Comcast Xfinity On Demand, HBO Go and MLB.tv, which join a constantly growing array of third-party content providers. Sony's PS3 matches the 360 with Hulu Plus, Vudu and other third-party options, while also beating Microsoft to the punch in offering native Amazon Instant Video streaming. Add in Sony's own Video Unlimited store for movie rentals and purchases and you get a vast choice of suppliers that's hard to keep straight.
If there's one consistent theme to movie and TV streaming, it's that the market remains highly fragmented and no single service is able to serve everyone's needs. That's understandable, in light of how many rights owners each company has to appease in order to bring a streaming or download service into existence. Google's plight with Google TV has been an instructive example of that, with content providers actively keeping their content off Google's connected set-top box. Apple isn't doing too much better with Apple TV, adding the dedicated MLB, NBA, and NHL channels, but mostly relying on the iTunes store to satisfy people's multimedia needs.
It'll take time for video on demand to coalesce into the same sort of maturity as music, and until then we'll have to deal with a smattering of different service providers (a lot of them overlapping in the content they offer), multiplicities of pricing tiers and subscription options, and a bunch of international inconsistencies. No single company is really approaching a coherent and comprehensive VOD offering yet.
There's not much to say here that you're not already aware of. Amazon has the biggest store of electronic and paper books, its Whispersync system lets you sync progress in books across devices, and it sells the best e-reader in the business. Sony's Reader family of products is doing well in its native Japan, but can't compete with the global popularity of the Kindle or the breathtaking seamlessness of being in that device's ecosystem. If reading is your thing, Amazon truly has you covered. Free Kindle apps exist for PC, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, plus there are tablet-specific variants for the iPad and Android slates. And if all else fails, there's the Kindle Cloud Reader that'll let you read via the web.
Amazon started off selling books and it's still going strong
Apple's iBookstore and Google's Play Books are direct attempts at competing with Amazon's hegemony, but neither can offer the same sort of tailored user experience. One developing area where Apple may have an advantage in is the selling of digital magazine and newspaper subscriptions via its Newsstand publishing platform. The whole publishing industry is still trying to figure out how to properly monetize periodical digital publications, and the iPad is seen as the device that could drive that development forward. Its performance, popularity, and (on the latest model) pixel-rich display can certainly be considered strong stimulants for getting people to buy into Apple's proposed ecosystem within an ecosystem. The chronic issue with Apple, however, is that you won't soon see the Newsstand app appearing on competing devices and platforms, so if you want to consume that rich media content on more than one machine, you'll most likely only have Apple hardware to choose from.
Google lays claim to having the widest range of book titles available, at over 3 million, but its big problem is that it doesn't have the devices needed to drive user adoption. Yes, Android gives you a truly wide range of smartphones to choose from, but where are the E Ink readers with month-long battery life or the color tablets with a quick and snappy interface? As Ice Cream Sandwich proliferates on tablets, Google's competitiveness in the latter category should improve, but it's still far behind the iPad and the (ironically Android-based) Kindle Fire.
Were you among the few using Microsoft Reader?
Microsoft and Facebook don't have direct strategies for addressing the e-reading market. Microsoft already tried and failed with the Microsoft Reader program (which is being closed down at the end of August), whereas in Facebook's case it's more a matter of the company's young age and prioritization of things like music and video content above ebooks.
Hardware specs mean nothing without games to put them to good use
The PS Vita has more potential than any portable console before it, but does it have a market?
Game developers love standardized hardware platforms and development tools. That, along with massive built-in audiences, is why they're still devoting the majority of their time to the well-aged Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The desktop PC has for a long time offered significantly better, higher-resolution visuals than Microsoft and Sony's consoles, but much of its potential has been left untapped precisely because the current focus is on console development first. Some companies like DICE, the maker of the Battlefield series, make a point of developing specifically for Windows PCs and pushing the state of the art in graphical fidelity, but that marks them out as the exception rather than the rule.
Until the two console giants refresh their home entertainment hardware, the usual relationship between blockbuster games and cutting-edge graphics is being maintained only in sputters by teams like DICE, Crytek, and Id Software. Still, if you want the very best gaming experience, your software choice will be a no-brainer: Windows. Valve's Steam service has made online game purchases easier and built up a solid community around the act of gaming, and it's spreading its influence out to Apple's OS X as well. Still, OS X is not the hardcore gamer's platform of choice. It offers a far narrower selection of games to play, and release dates for major titles typically trail those for Windows PCs.
Microsoft has conquered the desktop and console, but mobile gaming is Apple's domain
Apple's real strength in gaming actually lies in mobile devices. It may feel like the company almost stumbled into its gaming success, and in some ways it did. Back when he introduced the third-generation iPod touch in 2009, Steve Jobs said that Apple was pitching the PMP as a gaming machine because that's how users were perceiving it, as a sort of iOS portable console. The processor upgrades in subsequent device generations, including Apple's own system-on-chip designs, have helped spur that on, but what's really propelled the platform forward has been the consistency in hardware specs and the App Store's extensive market. In other words, a standardized hardware platform with standardized dev tools and a built-in audience.
Google's Android ecosystem has been tracking a similar trajectory of growth, however a couple of factors have dampened its ascent. One is the fragmentation of device specs and OS versions, leading developers like Angry Birds author Rovio to complain about the logistics of having to support multiple varieties of Android software and a multitude of Android hardware at the same time. Eager to see more progress on the platform, Nvidia and Sony have introduced two hardware-specific content curation services, the Tegra Zone and the PlayStation Certified scheme, respectively. Both provide an enhanced set of gaming options to users of compatible devices, yet ironically also serve to widen the fragmentation problem that led to their initial creation. Amazon's Appstore adds a further source you can obtain games from, though it doesn't pretend to be a complement to the Google Play store, it aims to substitute it. Amazon has little choice in that matter since the Kindle Fire doesn't, and won't, have access to Google Play, leaving Amazon to build its own Appstore. Its gaming strategy has been to throw money at developers, with the original launch of the Appstore featuring a short-term exclusive on Angry Birds Rio, and hope that users will be enticed to install and consistently use it on non-Amazon Android devices.
Everyone wants Angry Birds on their phone
Microsoft's mobile gaming situation is looking rather bleak at the moment, as highlighted by the recent Rovio fiasco where the company wasn't sure whether there would or wouldn't be a Windows Phone version of Angry Birds Space. Even the most exciting (for nostalgic reasons) game on the platform, Snake '97, only made it to Windows Phone a number of months after appearing on Android and iOS. So long as this continues to be the trend, there's basically no reason why you should consider Windows Phone a preferable mobile gaming solution to the other two. There’s even Xbox Live app already available on iOS. Microsoft has vast potential to exploit in terms of interplay between its mobile platform and the Xbox, but so far the connections between the two have remained superficial. As to growing the number of high-quality games available on Windows Phone, I've been told by the developers of Shadowgun that the reason that game isn't available on the platform is because Microsoft doesn't allow low-level API access. So while Microsoft's dev tools are among the best, they just don't reach down deep enough for game makers to produce their best content.
The PS Vita is Sony's big play for a return to relevance on the mobile front, though its fate doesn't look entirely rosy given the trend of portable consoles continually ceding market and mind share to smartphones. One of the really nice (and arguably overdue) features introduced with the Vita is the ability to progress in a game both on the PS3 home console and the Vita portable. MLB 12: The Show is so far the only major exponent of this, allowing you to share saves across Sony's devices and keep your career going whether at home or on the move. The one big friction point with this new feature? You need to own the game twice, once for each platform. Sony also offers Remote Play, for streaming certain games from the PS3 to the Vita's display, a feature that was already available on the earlier PSP, but got a big marketing push with the Vita because of its better, higher-res screen. There's certainly plenty in Sony's ecosystem to keep you entertained, but its reliance on Android for mobile and tablet products is problematic, and the company could be doing more to make the Vita and PS3 feel truly like members of the same family.
Zynga is Facebook's main supplier of life-usurping software
Facebook keeps it simple with gaming. It sticks strictly within the casual realm, splitting its influence between web-based games directly on Facebook.com and mobile and external-domain games that are plugged into the ecosystem with Facebook Connect. In short, Facebook doesn't want to be your actual games provider, but it does give you the tools — like Facebook Credits to spend in-game — to keep gaming within its realm.
Three of our big six have dedicated mobile operating systems — Android, iOS and Windows Phone — two sell devices with specially customized interfaces, and the one that doesn't have its own OS has been working hard to integrate (or acquire) the most popular mobile apps. All the growth, expansion and eventual profit have been clustering around mobile devices for a while now, and having some control over them and what software they run is fundamental to ensuring your ecosystem continues to flourish.
Apple took a lot of flak when it launched the iPad with iOS instead of a variant of Mac OS, but the time since then has vindicated that decision many times over, with the desktop OS X subsequently shedding the "Mac" from its name and adding an iOS-like launcher. The simplicity and accessibility of iOS are clearly winning users over, in spite of its limitations. The popularity of iOS devices is now in a constant virtuous circle with the thriving developer ecosystem, resulting in the best selection of third-party applications on any platform. Apple's job on the mobile front is comparable to that of Twitter: the company can take its time rolling out new features while engaged users generate the compelling content for it. The definition of a rolling juggernaut.
iOS vs. Android, the big battle of our time
Google's Android took a major step forward with version 4.0 and is now preferred by many ahead of iOS because of its greater customizability and flexibility. The gap in app selection is narrowing almost by the day, although it won't be closed completely until apps like Paper for the iPad and the mobile Sparrow email client launch simultaneously on Android and iOS. Google's major advantage over its competitors is that it has the best first-party mobile and web apps. The Android Gmail client supports labels, threads, and basically everything else you'll find on the web, plus it's immediately set up for you as soon as you sign into your Android device. Easing the setup burden for new devices should be the cornerstone of any ecosystem and Android is a winner in that respect. Google Talk is effortlessly simple and, for my money, more intuitive than Apple's iMessage. Moreover, Google benefits from having the best email service, full stop, meaning every non-contrarian sapient being is already signed up for Gmail, and by extension Gtalk, Google+, and (where available) Google Voice. If there's one thing holding Android back at the moment, it's the vast variety of devices running it, resulting in headaches for developers — having to support multiple tiers of display sizes and processors specs — and users, who aren't always guaranteed a consistent experience.
Amazon bridges the gap between Apple and Google with its thoroughly tweaked version of Android on the Kindle Fire. It's laser-focused on media consumption and trims back Android's versatility significantly, but you can buy Amazon's device with the assurance that you'll get access to a deep library of content that will work very well on it. The loss of access to the Google Play store is offset by Amazon's own Appstore (which is subject to continual investment in short-term exclusives and daily deals on apps), the Kindle ebook marketplace, Amazon MP3, and the Prime Instant Video service. The latter is sadly limited to the US for now, but Amazon acquired European streaming service Lovefilm with a view to expanding the reach of its VOD services.
Amazon takes the ease of device initialization even further than Google by setting up Kindles and Kindle Fires with the purchaser's account details already put in. It's a little disquieting to see "Vlad's Kindle" appear on a previously untouched tablet, but it also makes for an undeniably smooth experience. Other than spreading its Kindle, MP3 and general store apps as widely as possible, Amazon isn't yet in the smartphone fight.
There seems to be room for more mobile ecosystems than operating systems
Windows Phone is Microsoft's big mobile reboot and modernization project and rivals iOS and the stock Android 4.0 for the smoothest and classiest user experience. Its problem, however, is that it's yet to reach a critical mass of either users or quality apps, which the iOS and Android experience has shown grow in a symbiotic fashion. Stuck having to pull itself up by its bootstraps, Windows Phone must be considered a continuing work in progress and a relative weak point for Microsoft. Like Android, Windows Phone has a web interface for its app Marketplace, which can be used to send apps directly to your phone, track its location, lock it with a password, or even wipe it remotely. Apple has similar options for remote access and app installation via iTunes, but they're not as refined or as easy as the web-based variants offered by Google and Microsoft.
Though there have been rumors of a Facebook phone for a long time, Mark Zuckerberg has so far elected to pursue a strategy of making his social network ubiquitous on whatever platforms are already available. Through Facebook Connect, you can log into some of the most popular apps, such as Skype, Foursquare, Groupon, Draw Something, and Words With Friends using your Facebook ID. Depending on how thoroughly the app developer has utilized Facebook's available APIs, you'll then be able to post to your wall, check in with your location, and do the fundamental act around which Facebook is built: socialize. In many ways, Facebook's mobile presence is like Google's search before the introduction of the Chrome browser. The company doesn't have enough control to dictate that its service be the one that everyone uses, but it makes things more convenient and thereby keeps growing. Facebook's the only major ecosystem vendor not to sell its own tie-in hardware, the plus side of which is that you can be part of Facebook's clique without having to let that affect your choice of hardware.
One day PlayStation Certification might mean something, but today it's a vacuous label
Like Amazon, Sony attempts to remix Android in an effort to give you its own class of user experience. Unlike Amazon, however, Sony's efforts have only ever been skin-deep, augmenting visual tweaks with Music and Video Unlimited apps and the stillborn PlayStation Store. PlayStation Certification was supposed to signal a sea change in mobile gaming, but so far it's only marked a selection of Sony and Sony Ericsson mobile products that have failed to live up to lofty expectations. Sony's failure to capitalize on the strength of its PlayStation brand and rich gaming heritage leaves it lagging behind on the mobile front. There's nothing on a Sony mobile device that wouldn't be able to replicate with stock Android, which has the significant advantage of being quicker to major software updates than Sony's range.
Attracting developers is half the battle
The PC is far from dead
As pointed out above, desktop computing is a waning star compared to its upstart mobile sibling, but the transition between the two will take a mighty long time to complete, if ever. Until then, Windows is firmly entrenched as the dominant operating system for business and consumer users alike. There's a mind-boggling array of programs you can install and things you can do with a Windows machine and Microsoft is now working on making those previously isolated pieces of software communicate with one another. Through the use of Contracts in Windows 8, Metro apps will be able to share information and interact, streamlining the user experience when employing multiple apps to complete one task. This is a great example of how an ecosystem architect can improve on third-party software without actually getting involved in its development.
Apple's OS X has a markedly smaller market share than Windows, but its consumer-centric design has resulted in a number of usability advantages. Installing and uninstalling apps is done via simple drag-and-drop operations, there's AirDrop for seamless sharing across the same Wi-Fi network, and the Mac App Store makes searching for and adding new software a breeze. Microsoft's Windows Store should match the latter capability with its introduction alongside Windows 8. Another area where Microsoft has catching up to do is in basic productivity apps. Programs like iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand come preloaded on OS X computers and are legitimately useful, while the dev community has also built some stupendously elegant add-ons, such as Sparrow for email, Skitch for sharing screen captures, Things for keeping organized, and the incomparable Alfred for doing and launching just about anything on a Mac. Apple scores extra points here for making it a cinch to link to an app from the App Store, providing you with either the web URL or a "Tell a Friend" dialog.
Less rapid innovation than on the mobile front, though facing the same challenges
The big problem with both Apple and Microsoft's operating systems, however, is that they're failing to capitalize on all the potential at their disposal. Apple forces you to use the flawed iTunes to manage all your content, subscriptions and devices, while Microsoft hasn't made nearly enough use of its excellent Media Center suite. Since desktop computers can reasonably be expected to act as the nexus of a digital entertainment ecosystem — owing to having the most storage, if nothing else — it's disappointing that neither of the two big companies is presently offering suitably robust centralized management software.
Sony, Amazon and Facebook limit themselves to delivering primarily web-based versions of their services, leaving the underlying software to the two big incumbent to sort out. You might reasonably expect Sony to be doing more, since it sells a full range of Windows PCs, but so far its software additions have mostly fallen in the bloatware category. Still, with the One Sony future strategy now fully laid out by new CEO Kaz Hirai, perhaps we'll start to see more synergy between Sony's mobile, desktop, and living room devices. The point is that right now they're sitting as insular pieces of consumer electronics, which is the converse of the modern interconnected ecosystem that everyone is looking for.
Chrome OS has the right idea, but lacks the breadth of functionality needed to compete
Google is the only big company to attempt to do battle with Apple and Microsoft on the desktop OS front, but its Chrome OS hasn't found much traction and has retrospectively been designated as "enterprise" software. Much like Amazon with the Kindle Fire, Chrome OS is more concerned with plugging the user into a service environment rather than selling him the underlying device — as evidenced by the pricing model employed by Google, which charges an annual fee per Chromebook and will replace damaged or outdated units free of charge. The difference here is that Amazon gives you access to its shopping cornucopia, whereas Chrome OS has for a long time been just the Chrome browser. The latest update is starting to bring in some more desktop-like functionality, implicitly conceding that a healthy OS needs more than a browser, but user take-up so far remains minimal. It's looking likely to remain that way so long as the Chrome Web Store is populated by links posing as applications and other dubiously useful additions. One ray of hope is provided by the browser's Native Client toolkit, which has facilitated the porting of much-loved games like Bastion and Mini Ninjas to be playable entirely within the browser. But that's something to look forward to in the future; for maximum compatibility and ease of use today, you'll be running either OS X or Windows 7 on your desktop and that will be that.
Shopping and payments
Amazon is the undisputed king of online shopping, with its web store pulling in annual revenues of $42 billion and selling everything from Aeron chairs to Zanussi vacuum cleaners. The company started its life as an online book seller and that pedigree has been carried on with its Kindle ebook reader and Store. By distributing its related Kindle app broadly and keeping most of its operations accessible via a web browser, Amazon has certainly made its services platform-agnostic, but using them still means going to Amazon itself. In an effort to counteract that isolated nature and to make your Amazon credentials more useful, Jeff Bezos and company introduced Amazon Payments in 2006, a checkout service that can be put to use by other online retailers. Alas, in all the time it's been around, that option has only been taken up by a limited number of shops, with J&R and Lenovo arguably being the most significant.
Google Checkout was introduced in the same year as Amazon Payments, targeted the same market, and met with just as much reluctance from consumers and retailers. Google isn't giving up, however, and recently introduced Google Wallet for mobile payments via NFC-enabled Android handsets. Tying in with MasterCard's PayPass venture, it aims to streamline small payments on the move and thereby rekindle interest in Google's payment processing services, which are already integrated into the Play store for the purchase of mobile apps and in-app upgrades. Some security concerns have arisen in recent months and the rollout of Wallet has been slow (non-existent outside the US), but perhaps those are the bumps you have to take while bringing something new to the market.
Microsoft Points can be used in many ways, but real cash is even more universal
Facebook Credits and Microsoft Points take the alternative route of turning your money into a virtual currency to be spent within the given ecosystem. Both are geared toward funding game-related purchases, with Facebook focusing on in-game items for FarmVille, The Sims Social and the like, and Microsoft letting you buy whole games and avatar customizations on Xbox Live. Points purchased through your Xbox can also be used on your PC for Games for Windows Live extras or in the Zune Marketplace to purchase music or movies. At first sight, narrowing down the value of your money into what are essentially single-source spending vouchers doesn't seem like a great deal, but the standardization is handy for presenting a unified interface across different regions and currency regimes. Still, it introduces an extra step in the payment process and Microsoft, for one, has been rumored to be considering abandoning its Points system for straight cash payments.
Apple and Sony have steered clear of the specialized methods described above, although both already process millions of payments flowing in from their various content and subscription services. In spite of Sony's moderately successful monetization of the PS3 (which might be doing better today if it weren't for last year's successful hacking attacks on the PlayStation Network), Apple's clearly in the lead here thanks to the App Store, iTunes, Newsstand, and in-app purchases. There have also been persistent rumors that the first iPhone with NFC will be accompanied by the company's own version of Google Wallet. Of course, even with Apple's considerable influence in the mobile payment space, we'd still be a mighty long time away from abandoning paper and plastic payment methods in favor of just our smartphones.
Security worries raised by the PSN hacks aren't putting us off from spending online
Payment processing is something almost all of these companies do well, with Facebook arguably having the most rudimentary system. You can purchase what you want with little friction and there's generally an assurance that you won't find your credit card abused because you signed up to a given service. Security issues like those suffered by Sony and highlighted by Google Wallet are also treated with severe urgency. These companies want you to spend your money through them and do their best to make that a bulletproof and smooth experience. The problem we're all facing, however, is that progress on mobile payments has been painfully slow and there's also no universal web checkout option despite Amazon and Google's efforts. Until those two services reach maturity, there can't be a completely comprehensive ecosystem for the consumption of digital media and entertainment.
Microtransactions are growing increasingly important
Don't throw away the credit card just yet
It doesn't matter if you love or loathe Facebook, you pretty much have to be on it
Do you remember the last website you visited that didn't have a Facebook Like button on it? There's a reason why everyone is voluntarily jumping onto Facebook's Katamari ball and it's got little to do with how pretty that all-blue color scheme is (which, as a matter of fact, it isn't). Facebook's count of active users has grown to such an extent that it can now be a bigger traffic driver for some websites than Google search. That's pretty much forcing everyone to play nice with its social plugins, which in turn makes the mainstream web a thoroughly Facebook-friendly environment. Options to share via Facebook or Twitter are at least as pervasive as the ability to share via email.
Facebook is easily the king of this coop, but how well do the others fare? Amazon doesn't really try to be social beyond some sharing hooks in its Kindle software and doesn't seem to harbor any ambitions of building its own social network. Apple may appear to be doing the same, but it's not for a lack of trying. Ping, its "social network for music," got star billing during a keynote event in September 2010, but has failed to an almost comical degree. Ping is now a disused appendage on the iTunes menu, cluttering up the interface and adding little to entice the great masses of music listeners Apple already counts among its users. Game Center has been a similarly insipid affair. Intended as a competitor to Microsoft's wildly addictive Achievements scoring system on the Xbox, Game Center keeps track of how well you do across different iOS games and gives you another avenue for communicating and competing with your friends. It'll make its way to the desktop with Mountain Lion, but the cool reception it's received so far doesn't look likely to thaw any time soon. iPhone users are still far more likely to employ Facebook Connect or take to Twitter to crow about their gaming feats instead of using Apple's own software. This must be considered a failure for a company that prides itself on keeping all the core elements of its ecosystem in-house — and a robust model of social interaction is a hugely important pillar of the modern digital ecosystem.
Who dares to take on Facebook? Google+!
Google has met with no less frustration than Apple in its efforts to build its own social network. First there was Google Wave, a work collaboration service, then there was Google Buzz, a social network built right into Gmail, and now there's Google+, the most direct (and in many ways derivative) challenger Facebook has yet faced. Google quickly cut its losses with Wave and Buzz, but it's fully invested in Google+. This will be its social platform for the future, of that there's no doubt. G+ sharing is being rolled out as widely as possible, aided by Google's recent introduction of a persistent "utility bar" at the top of Google web products. You can share anything you're reading directly from that bar's right side and the +You item is first on the menu list on the left side — like any good software engineer, Google is resorting to sheer brute force in its attempts to overcome this persistent hurdle.
Social interaction isn't just about dedicated networks, of course, and a great deal of communication takes place via the more conventional means of instant messaging and email. Google wins the prize for best email client and certainly offers a robust IM option in Google Talk, while Apple's iMessage is a decent, if somewhat unwieldy alternative. Facebook's taken care of both by introducing Facebook email and IM services, both of them built directly into its web and mobile clients. The most attractive thing about Apple and Microsoft's email services may be the short TLDs they're attached to, @me.com and @live.com, respectively. Apple makes a big deal of managing and syncing your email via iCloud, but there's little to mark that out as a preferable method over the more commonly used Microsoft Exchange.
Microsoft's Skype acquisition needs to start paying off soon
Microsoft has some very powerful pieces in its social arsenal, but seems unable to put them together in the best way. It already controls the most dominant operating system on consumer devices, it's developed a fantastically active and thriving user community around Xbox Live, and not too long ago it bought the most popular video chat service on the web in an $8 billion deal for Skype. There's a beautiful vision somewhere in Redmond of Windows users connecting seamlessly across the company's device portfolio, but it hasn't quite been realized yet. Moreover, video calling competition from Apple's FaceTime and Google's Hangouts, among others, is starting to undermine the value of Skype as a technological platform. Still, the Xbox 360 is the best-connected console around, with dedicated Twitter and Facebook apps filling any gaps in your social life not already occupied by the Xbox Live community.
Sony's cultural disconnect from the west is evident in its inadequate social strategy
Facebook integration is also available on the PS3, however there's no way to plug into Twitter directly. You'll have to go via the console's built-in browser if you want to notify others of your Trophy acquisitions. In general, the PS3 and Sony as a whole are both behind the curve when it comes to social interactivity. The company is certainly trying, with the PS Home imitating Second Life in providing you a 3D avatar to walk around a virtual environment with, but its design is closer to that of a social game than a true social platform on a gaming console. Sony makes sure to include a Twitter client on its newer Vita portable console and will continue trying to keep up with the trends, but it really can't offer much, if any, advantage over the other ecosystems discussed herein.
So, how do all the moving parts above fit together? With plenty of friction. The oft-recited maxim about Apple is that it's all smooth sailing if you stick within its ecosystem and never attempt to stray outside it. That's still mostly the case. Apple took an eternity to bring iTunes to Windows, and the software's performance can still be ranked somewhere just above "atrocious." Thunderbolt Apple displays and iMacs only work with other Mac Thunderbolt products. Purchases you make in the iOS and Mac App Stores are transferable across devices, but the only compatible machines carry that half-bitten apple logo. If you want to run OS X or iOS on anything not made by Apple, you're out of luck. So all the old truisms about the Cupertino company keeping its walls highs are true, but the garden inside isn't as effortless and graceful as you might have been led to believe. There are still headaches around having to purchase the same app multiple times for your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and while iCloud has sought to streamline most of the data synchronisation chore, it's arguably gone too far. The most common complaint about iCloud is that it does too much automatically, including auto-uploads of photos to your Photo Stream, which couldn't be individually deleted until the most recent iOS 5.1 update.
Amazon is the one company that arguably keeps its internal workings most tightly integrated, although it also offers a significantly narrower focus than the others. The universal access on popular platforms makes owning a Kindle ebook truly a hardware-agnostic experience, while the automated sync facility means you don't have to limit yourself to any one device. The Kindle Fire was a real masterstroke in dumping all the assets Amazon was accruing — its own Appstore, the Amazon Prime video streaming library, and the MP3 store — into one unifying device. Next up, the company needs to enter the smartphone realm, something many expect will happen by the end of the year, in order to establish itself as a legitimate competitor to the all-encompassing ecosystems of Apple, Google and Microsoft.
iCloud, Picasa and SkyDrive are all useful — just don't try to make them work together
Google makes an effort to be both inclusive of others and available to users of other platforms. You may question how sincere that effort is when the company continues to refuse to sanction a YouTube app for Windows Phone and recently served up a half-baked Gmail app for iOS, but Google still generates the bulk of its revenue through advertising so there's a built-in incentive for it to be omnipresent. Like Apple's Photo Stream and Microsoft's SkyDrive, Google offers an automatic picture upload service on Android, shooting images over to Picasa, which plugs directly into your Google+ profile.
Larry Page's team still perceives itself as primarily a web company and its recent introduction of a pervasive toolbar across all Google web products does a good job of advertising what you're using and linking in the rest of the company's services. It's actually a little startling to think that Google didn't have this kind of unifying system previously. The nexus of the Google web experience has also clearly shifted away from Gmail and toward Google+. Like any veteran RPG player will tell you, it's good to have a central hub to return to before venturing back out into the wilds of the web. Facebook's equivalent is obviously your news stream-infested home page, which can be a drain on both your time and patience.
Facebook's great at collecting information about you, whether you want it to or not
The issue posed by Facebook is similar to that posed by iCloud — attempting to automate things that users want to actually have control over is off-putting. Facebook tries to record absolutely everything you do on the web, including music playback, games scores, and communications with your friends, presenting it all as your personalized timeline, but it ultimately comes off as a little too intrusive. It also doesn't help that there's no such thing as a Facebook-specific user experience once you step away from its web or mobile client. The Facebook Connect apps you can plug into are a hodgepodge of designs and UI concepts, owing to the fact that they're really independent entities in themselves and not within Facebook's control.
Sony and Microsoft are the most frustrating two companies of this group because they have the infrastructure already in place, plus a great number of strengths that come from their respective market positions, yet neither seems able to pull them all together into a cohesive whole. Microsoft has Office and the Xbox, but the only thing it does with either on Windows Phone is install them as siloed applications. Sony has the Vita, the PS3, and the might of its PlayStation brand on smart mobile devices, but it's failing to make them work together in a way that's actually beneficial and attractive to the user. Maybe it'll finally succeed given enough time, but the one thing mounting losses don't afford you is time.
Is it worth sticking with one company to get the fully tailored experience?
It may have been self-evident from the start, but the dream of having just one account to serve all your computing and entertainment needs remains out of reach. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, one company can serve some of your needs all of the time, or all of your needs some of the time, but never both. There are things we all yearn for, whether we're aware of it or not, such as being able to jump between devices with a gay disregard for who made them or when. Or having all of our apps loaded and waiting for us before we even pick up a new device. All the recent talk of web-based identities and cloud syncing can't disguise the great chasm that exists between the current state of affairs and the universal dream of the continuous client. We certainly give enough of our personal information to these companies to expect that they'll know exactly what applications we like using, what games we like playing, and what locations we frequent, but the responses they have given us thus far have been frustratingly disjointed. Some of this has to do with legal technicalities, a great deal is inspired by ecosystem protectionism, and a tiny smidgen is just human ambition outpacing current technical capabilities.
So, ultimately, which ecosystem should you use? The most fragmented one you can tolerate. Loyalism to any one brand or company breeds unnecessary dependency on services that are rarely the best in their class. Use Gmail, but don't bother with Google+. Buy an iPhone, but don't rely on iCloud. Get a PS3, but steer clear of the Unlimited streaming services. Own a Windows 8 tablet without buying the Zune Music Pass. For today at least, the integration of multiple services into one package is more helpful to the company trying to sell its full bundle of goods than for the user looking for a seamless digital experience.