Ecosystems Suckage – Why?

December 1, 2012

IT’S AN OLD story set in the modern age. Chances are like many you’d probably love to sample the delights of one smartphone/tablet operating system (say Android), but would never seriously entertain the idea because all your stuff is stuck on another app in another operating system (such as iTunes).

It mightn’t sound like a big deal, but think of it this way: in the business world, corporates using similar practices to lock customers into their products and services are frequently dealt out a can of whoop-ass by regulators for what is known as anti-competitive business practices. That is business activities that lock customers into a specific brand, and in the process, stiffing competition and creating monopolies. This isn’t small beer, either – the fines leveled at these corporates have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is a very serious business indeed.

Yet ironically, Apple, Google, Microsoft and a bunch of others are blatantly doing just this sort of thing, and amazingly, appear to be getting away with it. You could argue that pushing their respective ecosystems in the hope that we won’t migrate to a competitor’s platform is just good business practice, but after living the dream (uh, nightmare) for several years, I find it at best incredibly annoying, and of course totally moronic.

Reviewing different handsets, tablets and other computing widgets from a multitude of manufacturers in the past saw me migrating between ecosystems all too often. Interestingly, it wasn’t migrating between apps that was the problem (most apps I use tend to be free and many are supported on multiple platforms). What proved to be the ball breaker was music and podcast subscriptions. Straying from iTunes to Android or Windows phone meant leaving my music behind (or spending hours converting it into yet another format so it’d play nice with the shiny new hardware I was itching to road-test). Not Good.

As tempting as it is to say “big fat hairy deal”, I’ve become a firm convert to the view that this is a slippery slope and if left unchecked, it has the potential to transform consumer electronics in the near future into the stuff of nightmares. Imagine how pissed you’d be if your Sony DVD player would only play Sony DVDs, and that new movie was only available for Samsung hardware? Well, when it comes to your smartphone, tablet, and games consoles, that’s precisely what is already happening. And at the risk of sounding like a total grinch, I think its a pretty awful thing to do to loyal customers, and is ultimately bad for the overall market.

So, why is this such a bad thing for the market? For a start, monopolies are inefficient beasts. If your customers are locked into your ecosystem there is a fair chance that you’ll eventually become complacent. The rate of innovation would slow, prices would slowly creep up and you’d make the greedy bastard corporate decisions that we’re seeing from existing players already in the market.

Ironically, one of the biggest selling points of the original IBM MS-DOS PC was that it used off-the-shelf standard components on a bog standard operating system. This meant I could install peripherals and software regardless of who made them. In turn it also sparked some serious innovation (and of course, competition) which saw PC gear such as mice, sound cards, video cards and all manner of other PC bits rapidly becoming more powerful and fully featured as manufacturers used innovation to compete. Best of all, prices steadily trended downwards, and the consumer was the winner.

This clearly isn’t what is happening now. Sure, I can still buy PC expansion peripherals from multiple manufacturers, but being able to watch Xbox movies on my PlayStation while I also download and install Android games on it is simply a non-starter.

Back in the day, computer buyers must have been a hell of a lot smarter than they are now. After all, why would anyone with half a brain in their head buy a computer that only worked with content from one provider? That provider can never hope to create anything on a par with what is available to the wider market. In effect, this whole ecosystem thing is perpetuating a monopoly which over the longer term is ultimately stifling innovation.

We seem to have all fallen in love with the idea of everything being easy. Popping into Apple’s App store to install Grand Theft Auto onto my iPod is easy, convenient (and dare I say it, a fun way to while away what little spare time I have in my average day).

Sure, I agree that avoiding this cosy seamless ecosystems approach isn’t easy. I recently had the fun job of getting a network drive to stream content to a tablet and smart TV. The experience was sufficiently counter-intuitive that I can see why most non-techie people liking all-in-one ecosystems where things just happen. Trouble is, the technical issues I faced had nothing to do with ecosystems, but were more about poorly implemented support for open standards such as DLNA and SMB. Having used iTunes on both a Mac and a PC, I’d also cynically argue that some manufacturers could even be hobbling apps to drive people to their own ecosystems.

The really scary thing about this whole ecosystem thing isn’t that it encourages monopolies, sloppy coding and inflated pricing, but that it gives corporates far too much control over data and apps that customers legitimately purchased, and that is just plain wrong. Amazon wipes books off Kindles while Microsoft’s abandoned PlaysForSure saw millions of music files stuck on devices that are no longer supported. No wonder a growing number of people are turning to piracy.

Sadly, most buyers decide to stick with one vendor and pray that the widget purchased from that vendor continues to work with videos and music also purchased from that vendor, and that the vendor in a fit of boardroom group-think doesn’t decide to shut it down.
What really guts me however, is that all the disparate digital consumer electronics you’ve purchased should be able to play nice with each other. Standards such as DLNA for streaming media or SMB for storing data and a raft of emulator and virtual machine technologies have been in existence for eons. So why are us, the consumers (you know, us people with the money who buy all this junk) being treated so badly? PAT PILCHER

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.

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