Once upon a time, tech behemoths such as Microsoft and Apple battled to persuade businesses and consumers to purchase their computers, mobile devices or software packages.
Those days seem so quaint now.
Today, the battle is on a much larger scale. It is a war between vast ecosystems made up of hardware, software and online services, not just individual pieces of hardware and software. Purchase an iPhone, for example, and you're buying into the entire Apple ecosystem, including operating systems, apps, add-ons, music, movies, books and more. The big money isn't in your single purchase, but in encouraging you to purchase only products and services that interact with each other -- and your wallet.
With BYOD on the rise and our personal and professional lives becoming increasingly intermixed, an individual's choice to buy into one of these ecosystems affects her business use, and vice versa. And while many of us function in two or more of these ecosystems, others increasingly depend on a single system for both personal and business needs.
There are new players in this game as well. Now it's not just Apple and Microsoft, but also Amazon and Google and a host of specialists. Each offers a vast array of products -- and because there are strong differences between them, each offers distinct advantages and disadvantages, depending on which part of the ecosystem you're examining.
For example, Google and Amazon aren't hardware heavy hitters (although Google is indirectly involved in hardware through its Android mobile OS), while Apple and Microsoft are relatively weaker in shopping. Microsoft is strong in gaming, while Amazon rules when it comes to books. But one way or another, they're all locked in a death match.
In this article, we examine four of the largest technological media ecosystems -- Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft -- in terms of a variety of media: reading materials (books and magazines), gaming, music, shopping and video, as well as other areas. We also assess each ecosystem in terms of how well it works as a unified whole -- in other words, how smoothly each part of the ecosystem works with all the other parts.
To do this, we've enlisted three writers who have a great deal of experience in covering these ecosystems and reviewing their products: JR Raphael on Google, Michael deAgonia on Apple, and Preston Gralla on Amazon and Microsoft. (Gralla also wrote the introductions and conclusion.).
How do these huge ecosystems compare when it comes to the media marketplace? Let's see.
How do you feel about these large company-based ecosystems? Do they make for a better consumer (and business) experience or do they limit our choices? We'd love to get your feedback -- good, bad or anywhere in between -- in our comments section.
4 tech ecosystems: The basics How did each ecosystem develop?
Each of the four companies we're covering -- Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft -- has a different history, and so their ecosystems have developed in vastly different ways. Microsoft and Apple, for example, were born in the days when tech companies rose and fell based on the hardware and software they sold, while Google is a child of the Internet.
Amazon, on the other hand, started with a vision of an integrated ecosystem almost from its founding -- in a New York Times interview from 2005, CEO Jeffrey Bezos is quoted as saying that it is "...very important to get into new categories beyond books reasonably quickly." You have to wonder, however, if the company ever envisioned the sprawling network it would become.
Here's how each one grew.
Entertainment media is part of Amazon's basic DNA: The company was founded as a book-selling site in 1994. When it began branching out into selling other products, it initially focused on CDs and DVDs, and then added games, electronics -- and, eventually, everything else under the sun.
But even as Amazon broadened its reach beyond media, that segment remained a strong focus. Its first acquisitions of other businesses were mainly entertainment-related, including the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) in 1999, the online music retailer CDNow in 2003 and many others.
Today, Amazon is a retail behemoth, but media remains its core business --- witness its Kindle line of devices, all of which are designed to make it easier to buy books, movies, TV shows and music. And while other retailers have attempted to compete -- such as Barnes & Noble with its Nook line of e-readers -- so far, none have made serious inroads against the Amazon Goliath.
So it should be no surprise that its media ecosystem is powerful, well-integrated, and possibly the largest in the world.
In 1984, Apple's Macintosh was the first mass market computer to ship with a graphical user interface and mouse, opening up computing to users uncomfortable with the then-standard text-and-keyboard-based interface. After that, a flurry of technology initiatives -- from iMovie in 1999 to iTunes in 2001 to iPhoto in 2002 -- emphasized Apple's intentions to bring computerized media to its users.
However, it was the company's first foray into digital audio players that changed Apple's fortunes and validated its strategy. Apple's first music player, the iPod, introduced in 2001, was about the size of a deck of cards. Designed around Toshiba's 1.8-in. 5GB hard drive, it could hold approximately a thousand songs and automatically synchronized data and music content from the Mac using the already popular iTunes as the intermediary. It became the keystone for what Apple co-founder, chairman and CEO Steve Jobs termed his "Digital Hub" concept, where Apple's technology would be positioned at the center of the rising digital lifestyle.
Apple's Macintosh was the first mass market computer to ship with a graphical user interface and mouse. (Attribution: http://www.allaboutapple.com/)
The other shoe dropped during an April press event in 2003 when Apple introduced the iTunes Music Store, which offered the simple pricing structure of 99 cents per song and $9.99 per album. Any song purchase would automatically download and add itself to the music library -- which, in turn, would sync with iPods.
There was, however, a catch: The tracks were encoded with digital rights management (DRM) software, which limited playback and management to three computers (but an unlimited number of iPods).
In 2007, Apple rocked the tech world with the announcement of the iPhone, featuring a single button on a 3.5-in. glass screen and an interface designed to be manipulated with fingers using touches and gestures. The iPhone, like the iPod before it, had access to all of the content in the iTunes/App Store as well as many specialized accessories. In 2010, Apple followed with the iPad, which has become a conduit for users who want to access a wide and still-developing media universe.
Google started in 1996 as a collaboration between two Stanford computer science grad students: Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The service was known as BackRub during its infancy; in 1997, the duo officially adopted the Google moniker.
During its first decade, Google made massive headway in the field of Internet search, an area that had remained relatively stagnant until its arrival. It wasn't until 10 years into its existence that the company really seemed ready to break out of the box.
Google's first steps into the media world happened in the fall of 2006, when Google announced it was acquiring a consumer video startup called YouTube. Then-CEO Eric Schmidt described the merger as a way for Google to provide "a compelling media entertainment service" for users, publishers and advertisers alike.
YouTube paved the way for a rapid expansion of Google's entertainment empire. The company announced its plans for the Android mobile operating system in 2007, with the first consumer handset -- the T-Mobile G1 -- launching a year later alongside the first incarnation of the Android Market.
And things didn't stop there: Google unveiled a Web-centric operating system called Chrome OS in 2009, a television platform called Google TV in 2010 and services for online movie and music streaming in 2011. With each move, the simple search box moved further into the background of Google's persona, although search itself remained at the core of the company's business.
"The search business isn't just about search -- it's about attention," says James McQuivey, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. "Google's newer ventures represent an expansion of the ways the company can get that."
In tech years, Microsoft is an ancient company, founded in 1975 -- nearly 40 years ago -- by Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Back then, the furthest thing on the founders' minds was anything related to entertainment -- they were focused on products such as a BASIC interpreter, and then (with a contract in late 1980 with IBM) on operating systems like PC-DOS. The earliest PCs that ran DOS were far from gaming machines; many games required that users install add-on boards such as those made by a company called Hercules.
In 1982 Microsoft licensed a version of a flight simulation game from a company subLOGIC Corporation and called it Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0. Not only did the game become popular, but in those early days of PCs, the ability to run Microsoft Flight Simulator (and Lotus 1-2-3) was often used to test whether a machine was 100% compatible with the IBM PC.
Through the years, Microsoft has had media winners and losers. The Zune media player was a notable flop, but the Xbox 360 video game platform and community has become a rousing success, along with the Halo and Age of Empires series of games. Microsoft seems to be holding its own with its Windows Phone mobile devices, but there are a lot of people wondering whether its Surface tablets -- especially the lower-end Surface RT -- are innovative or a mistake.
Still, Microsoft's media system is a work in progress, being very strong in some areas such as gaming, and very weak in others, such as shopping and books.
Books and magazines
Predictions of the demise of printed books and magazines, brought on by digital media, have been premature -- but still, there's no denying that e-books and digital magazines are big business. An annual report from the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group found that the entire consumer book market was $15.12 billion in 2012, of which $3.042 billion were e-books. And according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, by 2017 consumer e-book sales will overtake consumer print book sales, with a predicted $8.2 billion in sales. Here's how the ecosystems stack up.
When you think of Amazon, you think of books, and with good reason: It's the foundation upon which the entire Amazon empire was built. Amazon is the world's largest book retailer. Just consider the numbers: Amazon has an estimated 60% of the e-book market and an estimated 25% of the market for printed books, according to its competitor Barnes & Noble. Whether you're looking to buy physical books or e-books, Amazon is the place to go. And it sells magazines on its e-reader the Kindle, as well as from its website.
The ecosystem includes the Kindle e-reader hardware, but you're not limited to reading e-books purchased through Amazon on that. There are also Kindle reader apps for the PC, Mac, iOS and Android devices. And Amazon is more than just a bookseller; it's a publisher as well, with seven imprints that cover everything from science fiction to mysteries, romance, nonfiction and literary fiction. It's this simple: Amazon's ecosystem rules the book world.
Apple made a late entry into digital book sales in January 2010, with the introduction of iBooks. This free iOS app functions as a gateway for the iBookstore -- where e-books are available both for free and for purchase -- and is also used for storing these books, and for reading on Apple's mobile hardware lineup. The iBookstore carries over 1.75 million books in 155 countries, and prices start at free and don't often go higher than $14.99. These e-book files contain DRM, but follow the same rules as video: That is, you can share these books among up to five computers authorized to iTunes, and an unlimited number of iOS devices can be used as they're synced up to any one of the five computers.
If you're not a fan of the iBooks app, or have already invested in another ecosystem, don't panic. Within the App Store, there are over 55,000 apps listed under the Books category, including full support for competing services, like Kindle, Nook and other popular (and not so popular) e-book readers. If you like comic books, there are plenty of choices here, too, with Marvel, DC and Image -- among others -- offering comics for purchase and download to their respective apps.
Apple also spotlights your newspaper and magazine subscriptions in the form of Newsstand, a specialized home screen folder that, when tapped, offers access to all of your subscriptions. There is an option to automatically download content when a change is detected, assuring that whenever you check the Newsstand, the information you are accessing is up to date. The Newsstand icon displays a numbered badge when updates are released. (The icons for newspapers and magazines -- which sit on virtual shelves in Newsstand -- also update themselves to represent the latest cover, which is a nice touch.)
On the other hand, Apple is having some trouble with the government for alleged antitrust actions having to do with e-books: A year ago, the U.S. Justice Department charged that Apple spearheaded a scheme with book publishers to keep the prices of e-books artificially high; on July 10, Apple was found guilty of violating antitrust laws. As of this writing, it was not clear whether the outcome would affect the pricing of Apple's e-books or, ultimately, its market share in the long term.
The Google Play Store has robust sections devoted to book- and magazine-based content. Following the cross-platform model, titles purchased from the Play Store are automatically synced across all devices and can be read on any Android phone or tablet as well as on any other Web-connected device.
Google also has a separate service named -- somewhat confusingly -- Google Books. That service allows you to search for content within actual books and magazines and to read excerpts or full text of some titles. Google Books has been the subject of much controversy within the publishing world because of the complex rights issues related to Google's scanning of older print editions.
If you're looking to buy magazines and books, Microsoft's isn't the ecosystem to go to. This is especially surprising, given that the company invested $300 million in the Nook business, which is built on book and magazine purchasing.
That being said, there is a Microsoft place to go to buy books and magazines: the Windows Store on Windows 8 or on a Windows Phone device. There you'll find a relatively small selection of books and book-related apps, and newspapers and magazines and related apps. So you can buy Dr. Seuss books for your kids, for example, or a variety of dictionaries. But there are very few offerings -- the entire Books & Reference section in the Windows Store, when I last checked, was 1,666 apps and books. For magazines, check the News & Weather section. Again, though, the pickings are slim -- 1,019 apps, and the vast majority of them area news-related apps rather than actual magazines.
You can, of course, download various e-reader apps such as the Kindle or Nook for your computer, tablet or phone, and buy books from Amazon and from Barnes & Noble. But that's really just tapping into someone else's ecosystem, not making use of Microsoft's.
In short, Microsoft falls well behind all of its competitors when it comes to buying magazines and books.
Unless you're a hard-core gamer or industry-watcher, you might not know that gaming is a big business -- a very big business. Microsoft estimates that $65 billion is spent annually on gaming: $27 billion on console-based gaming, $12 billion on PC-based gaming, $10 billion on mobile and tablet gaming, $8 billion on social networking/browser-based gaming and $8 billion on handheld device-based gaming. Who's strongest in which category? Which ecosystem is best positioned for the future?
Amazon's gaming strategy can be summed up in a single sentence: Buy games and gaming hardware from the site. And it must be admitted that the selection, like everything else at Amazon, is substantial. Name a game and you'll find it; name gaming hardware and you'll find it. You can buy not just boxed games, but downloadable ones as well.
Unlike Microsoft, Amazon doesn't have a gaming hardware platform. Certainly, the Kindle -- one of the very few hardware devices that bears Amazon's imprimatur -- isn't highly powered enough to be a true gaming platform like Microsoft's Xbox. And because the Kindle app store is a closed store, curated by Amazon, the selection of Android games you can download and play on it are limited compared to what you can get on other Android devices via Google Play.
In short, Amazon doesn't really have what can be called a gaming ecosystem. Instead, it sells game-related hardware and software, and lets you play a selection of games on the Kindle. Overall, this is Amazon's weakest part of its entertainment ecosystem.
Of the 850,000-plus apps currently in the App Store, over 144,000 titles are dedicated to gaming (this figure includes "lite" versions and demos). The number of games isn't indicative of quality, of course, but one can't deny that iOS has been a launching platform for some really great games, both casual and immersive.
Every genre is catered for with the staggering amount of games available. From Tetris to Minecraft, from Grand Theft Auto to Poker, from CSR Racing to Letterpress to Injustice: Gods Among Us, there's a game in the App Store for everyone.
The breadth of games available has spurned an interesting side effect, and that is a plethora of third-party gaming accessories. There are wireless controllers, steering wheels and joysticks; device cases with controllers built in; classic board games like Monopoly that utilize iOS devices to add another level of interactivity; as well as model helicopters, drones and vehicles that can be operated by iOS devices.
Of course, all that has to do with mobile iOS gaming, where Apple has had considerable success. But when it comes to desktop-based gaming, things haven't as gone well, where the Windows PC is the standard. And Apple doesn't have a console to compete against Microsoft's Xbox, either.
Google's entertainment ecosystem boasts what's arguably the most diverse hardware selection of any single platform. The reason: Android is an open-source platform and that means -- for better and sometimes for worse -- that manufacturers can use the software in any device imaginable and modify it in any way they wish.
While Google itself doesn't have a presence in console gaming, a number of manufacturers offer Android-based devices made explicitly for the purposes of entertainment. Sony's Xperia Play phone, for instance, combines a traditional Android smartphone with a console-like game controller for on-the-go play. Nvidia, meanwhile, is currently working on a portable Android gaming device known as Project Shield -- essentially an Xbox-like controller with a high-definition display. It'll be able to play console-quality games from Google Play as well as PC games from a shared Wi-Fi connection.
The common thread linking these devices and the more traditional Android smartphones and tablets is their access to the Google Play Store, which -- as part of its app collection -- offers a large collection of downloadable games for users. Titles range from puzzle and casino games to sports, arcade, and action experiences. Top-selling titles include games like Minecraft, Need for Speed, Plants vs. Zombies, Fruit Ninja and Sonic the Hedgehog.
In May, Google launched a centralized gaming framework called Google Play Game Services. It allows developers to tap into a universal network in order to provide users with the ability to save their games cross-device and cross-platform, as well take advantage of a multiplayer communication system complete with game play invitations, achievement tracking and leaderboards. The platform had 32 games on board at the time of its launch; Google expects more developers to integrate the framework into their titles.
Microsoft's gaming ecosystem is by far the richest and most comprehensive of its competitors, anchored by the best-selling Xbox 360 game console. The Xbox 360 has been the best-selling gaming console for more than two years, according to research firm NPD, which said that in January 2013, the Xbox had 44% of all console sales.
Every single one of the top ten selling games for that month was available on the Xbox, and one of them, Halo 4 (published by Microsoft Studios), was available only for the Xbox. The Xbox Live service lets you play games online against others, and also lets you watch TV and movies.
In fact, Microsoft has spent considerable effort turning its Xbox 360 gaming platform into a well-integrated ecosystem, although it's still a work in progress. You can connect from a Windows 8 device to your Xbox 360, and see your gaming history, download games to the Xbox 360, customize your Xbox Live profile and avatar and more. And there's a free Windows 8 and Windows Phone SmartGlass app you can download that works as a remote control for the Xbox 360. It also displays information about what you're playing or watching on your phone or Windows 8 device. However, you can't actually play the games on the Windows 8 device or Windows Phone. Instead, the game will play on your TV, as you normally do with the Xbox 360.
The Xbox One's new architecture is a combination of Xbox and the Windows kernel, and it has a new, faster processor, a Blu-ray Disc drive, 500GB hard-disk drive and Wi-Fi Direct.
All that is just a prelude to Microsoft's plans for the next generation of the Xbox, called Xbox One. Microsoft's goal is no less than using the Xbox to be the centerpiece of nearly the entire entertainment ecosystem in people's homes. The Xbox One's new architecture is a combination of Xbox and the Windows kernel, and it has a new, faster processor, a Blu-ray Disc drive, 500GB hard-disk drive and Wi-Fi Direct.
It will control your television set and cable TV, and is designed to move easily between gaming and TV watching. It will run Hulu, Netflix and other streaming video services; will play CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs; will come complete with Kinect (see explanation in the next paragraph), and will work with Windows 8 devices such as tablets and smartphones. These new capabilities come with a price tag to match: The Xbox One is expected to ship in November, and will sell for $500 (compared to $200 for the existing Xbox).
Microsoft has other gaming resources outside of the Xbox. Kinect lets you play games on the Xbox without a controller -- sensors let you control and play games using your hands, body and voice. Windows is itself a big game platform. And Windows Phone also offers gaming, although because its app ecosystem isn't as rich as for iOS or Android, you'll find fewer games available for it than for its competitors.
The company has also a number of game software megahits, notably the Age of Empires, and especially the Halo series.
After Apple almost single-handedly created the digital music market with iTunes, the world of selling digital music was stable for years: There was iTunes -- and then there was everyone else.
But times have changed and the digital music world is in flux. iTunes was built on selling digital downloads, which in a sense copied the physical world of retailing. You paid money to buy something and then it was yours, with certain limitations due to DRM.
Today, though, music services led by Pandora and Spotify have shown that streaming, not digital ownership, is likely the future of music, and each big ecosystem has taken a different tack in this arena. Read on to see how they compare.
Amazon may not be the sales behemoth in music that it is in books, but it's still got a sizable, solid business, both in CDs and digital, downloadable music. The CD business is about as straightforward as you can get -- buy CDs on Amazon and have them shipped to you. For buying digital music, Amazon takes an approach that almost seems quaintly old-fashioned in the fast-moving digital music marketplace: Buy individual MP3s from Amazon and play them on a device. The selection is sizable (currently more than 22 million songs), and Amazon has a Web-based MP3 store as well as an Android store.
As for iOS devices, there's no iOS Amazon MP3 app. You have to buy digital music on an iOS-optimized version of the Amazon website. And when you buy the music, it won't show up in iTunes.
Amazon's digital music sales have been gaining serious market share, likely driven by music sales on its Kindle Fire tablet, says the NPD Group. It reports that in the fourth quarter of 2012, Amazon had 22% of the market for music downloads, compared to 15% in 2011, 13% in 2010, 10% in 2009 and 7% in 2008.
iTunes, though, was still dominant in the fourth quarter of 2012, NPD reports, with 63% market share, although declining slightly from previous years, with 68% market share in 2011 and 69% in 2009.
The most innovative part of Amazon's music ecosystem is the Amazon Cloud Player, which lets you stream your music from the cloud to any computer or Android or iOS device. Any MP3 you buy from Amazon gets put into the cloud. And you can add digital music to it that you didn't buy from Amazon, such as music that you've ripped to a digital format yourself. It's not a subscription service like Spotify that streams music that you haven't bought, so you only get access to what you've purchased or to what you've copied.
That's it for now. Amazon appears to have its sights on launching a Spotify-like subscription music service. Reports say that it is in talks with music companies to start one. If that ever happens, Amazon's music ecosystem could become a juggernaut.
The big question for Apple these days when it comes to music is whether it can replicate the success of its digital music behemoth iTunes with its just-announced streaming Internet radio service, iTunes Radio.
There's no doubt that iTunes has been a raging success: As of April 28, 2013 -- at the tenth anniversary mark -- the iTunes Store has sold over 25 billion music tracks and is available in 119 countries, each with a selection of at least 20 million songs (the U.S. iTunes store alone carries over 35 million). According to NPD, the iTunes store accounts for about 30% of all music sold worldwide and 63% of all digital music sales.
There have been some tweaks since iTunes first started selling music. iTunes Plus music files are now free of DRM restrictions and are encoded as 256Kb/s AAC files. (Note: They still contain purchaser information.)
The big question for Apple these days when it comes to music is whether it can replicate the success of its digital music behemoth iTunes.
Music lovers with iOS devices are not limited to the iTunes Store; Apple's App Store includes the streaming services Spotify and Pandora, and the music-matching services Shazam and SoundHound. There's even a karaoke game for Glee fans, called, appropriately enough, Glee Karaoke.
If you own an Apple TV or any AirPlay-capable receiver, music can be beamed from any iOS device, Mac or Windows computer with iTunes to your living room setup with the tap of the virtual AirPlay button.
Meanwhile, iTunes Match is Apple's $25/year service that provides cloud access for up to 25,000 of your songs on your iOS/OS X/Windows devices via music populated in the iTunes Store. If you live in an area with a good cellular signal and have an iOS device with limited storage, iTunes Match is a good buy.
The just-announced iTunes Radio will have more than 200 streaming radio stations and, as with Pandora, you'll be able to build your own radio stations based on your musical preferences. It will be free and ad-supported, although anyone who subscribes to the iTunes Match service ($24.99/year) will get it ad-free. It will integrate with iTunes, so that you can buy any track in iTunes that you're listening to in iiTunes Radio.
The question is: Will that be enough to fend off the competition, notably Pandora and Spotify? We won't know until its availability in the fall. But just having Apple's backing makes it an instant contender.
In addition to offering albums and individual tracks for purchase, the Google Play Music interface allows you to upload your existing music collection and then stream it from Google's servers to any PC or mobile device. Any music connected to your account can also be "pinned" to a device for offline consumption.
As of May, Google also offers an on-demand streaming service called Google Play Music All Access; it provides unlimited streaming from Google's music library for $9.99/month. Songs from the service can be played on any device, be it a computer, smartphone or tablet. The All Access service includes an option for custom song- or artist-based "radio stations" in the style of Pandora, with no limit on the number of songs you want to skip.
At this point, Google Play's library of content is generally quite good. The store used to be rather limited in its music and movie offerings, but deals inked with Warner Music Group, 20th Century Fox and Time last fall rounded out the once-lacking selection.
When you think of Microsoft, music doesn't come to mind. Its Zune digital music player was a well-publicized flop, and it doesn't have a cloud-based music player like the Amazon Cloud Player or Google Play Music. Still, with its Xbox Music service for Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox 360, Microsoft has made an attempt to knit together a serious music ecosystem, and it's a good one. (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 users can only access the older Zune software music service.)
The Xbox Music app is built into Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and, of course, into the Xbox 360. But despite the app's name, you don't need an Xbox 360 to use it. It's yet one more example of Microsoft's confusing product naming.
There are two components to Xbox Music. One is an a la carte service that lets you buy tracks or albums individually. Its music selection is comprehensive and superb; Microsoft claims it has 18 million tracks in the U.S. from which to choose.
The second component is the Xbox Music Pass, a subscription service. For $10 per month, you get streaming access to those 30 million songs, and can also download them to your devices for offline listening. (If you cancel your subscription, you'll no longer have access to them.) Your playlists, music and albums sync across your devices. There's also a Pandora-like Smart DJ feature.
In addition, there's a free version of the subscription service that lets you listen to unlimited streaming music for six months for free, although you'll have to listen to ads. After six months, you're limited to 10 hours per month of listening.
The Xbox Music app and subscription service don't get nearly as much publicity as competitors like iTunes or Spotify. Despite that, though, it's a winner, and is good enough to make people forget the ill-begotten Zune digital music player -- if you're not one of the users still forced to use it, of course.
Video, like digital music, is in the midst of a historic transition. Plenty of people still buy or rent DVDs, but there's no doubt that the future of video is in streaming services. At the moment, Netflix is dominant in this space, but each of the big computing ecosystems we examine here is trying to make gains as well. In this section we look at the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Amazon doesn't have a stranglehold on video like it does on books, but still, the video portion of its entertainment ecosystem is substantial and growing. As with everything else at Amazon, there's a tremendously large collection of videos and TV shows to buy as DVDs. There's an excellent selection of classic movies, foreign movies and independent movies. So if you're looking for popular Hollywood movies, old classics or for movies of directors such as the Polish-born Krzysztof Kieslowski, you'll likely find what you want.
Amazon has moved beyond physically delivering movies, and is pushing its Instant Video service, which lets you stream from a selection of 140,000 videos on a pay-per-play basis, as well as its Amazon Prime Instant Video, which lets you stream as many of them as you want as part of a $79/year Prime subscription. You can watch on a variety of devices, including the Kindle HD.
There's more as well. Following Netflix's lead, Amazon is producing its own TV shows as a way to draw people to its streaming video service. A half-dozen have already been announced, and they're not going to be low-budget, no-name affairs. Pulitzer Prize-winning Garry Trudeau is writing one of them (a comedy called Alpha House), another is being written by Big Bang Theory actors Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie, and another will be a satirical comedy about the news by The Onion.
The iTunes Store offers movies in 109 countries, and there are over 60,000 titles available. Selection varies by region. In the United States, iTunes accounted for 65% of feature-length movie downloads, and 67% of TV shows sold in 2012, according to NPD.
Videos are generally available on iTunes the day they are released to DVD. Many titles come with iTunes Extras, which can include interactive features, images and other bonus materials. You can also rent movies; rentals must be played within 30 days, and you have only 24 hours to finish once you begin watching.
Videos come with DRM encoded into the file, but the DRM-restricted content can be shared among up to five computers. iTunes allows an unlimited number of iOS devices to carry the content as long as they're synced up to any one of the five computers authorized to iTunes.
When away from home, iPhone, iPod touch and iPad users can purchase, rent and download movies and music videos to their devices from the iTunes Store app. Macs and PCs running iTunes -- as well as iPhones, iPads, and the iPod touch -- can also stream music and video to an HDTV-equipped Apple TV. Apple TVs also deliver streaming content from partners like Netflix, Hulu Plus and MLB.tv.
There are also plenty of video-related apps in the Apps Store. Here you can find apps for subscription-based video services -- like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. Many networks, including A&E and HBO, offer access to hit TV shows. From making to watching, if it's video-related, there's probably an app that does what you need.
YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006, has become synonymous with Web-based video, from entertainment produced by big-name studios to homemade clips from less conventional "stars." The site's open setup allows anyone to upload videos and share them with the world, which has resulted in viral videos ranging from silly animals and babies to Psy's Gangnam Style and Justin Bieber. (Yup -- you can blame YouTube for both of those as well.)
In addition, Google Play offers a variety of movies rentals, movie purchases and TV show purchases (full seasons or specific episodes) for streaming or download.
YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006, has become synonymous with Web-based video.
Then there's Google TV. The Android-based television platform allows manufacturers to build Internet-connected devices for the living room, whether they be standalone set-top boxes or fully integrated TV sets. Google TV lets you surf the Web and stream Internet video as well as watch traditional cable or satellite programming, all with Google-enhanced interactivity.
The platform utilizes Google search to let you find content across numerous services. You can also install games and other apps directly from Google Play and control the entire system from any Android phone or tablet.
Despite releases from several major manufacturers, Google TV has thus far remained a niche product with limited mainstream success. At this year's Google I/O developers' conference in May, Google announced a significant new update for the platform. Manufacturers such as Asus, meanwhile, continue to launch new Google TV hardware.
In July, Google launched a $35 media streaming device called the Chromecast. It's essentially a stick that plugs into your TV's HDMI port and lets you play multimedia content using a smartphone, tablet or computer as a remote control. Currently, the Chromecast provides support for video playback via YouTube, Google Play and Netflix as well as any site that can be pulled up in the regular Chrome browser.
Xbox Video is Microsoft's video offering and, as with Xbox Music, you don't need an Xbox 360 to use it. It's a video app for Windows 8 and Windows RT (as well as the Xbox 360) and doesn't work on earlier versions of Windows or on Windows Phone. (Users of earlier versions of Windows or of Windows Phone can instead use the Zune software client.) The service is straightforward for-pay --- you can buy or rent videos and TV shows that you watch on those devices. You have the choice of downloading them or streaming them. No physical videos are shipped.
Microsoft says that the service has 200,000 movies and TV shows, but I found its offerings to be quite limited. If you're interested in movies outside current Hollywood movies and popular indie movies, you will find yourself disappointed. For example, it has only a single movie directed by the great French director Francois Truffaut, and that is his American movie Fahrenheit 451. The service doesn't have many of the great older American movies, including classics like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time, or the great comedy You Can't Take it With You. You won't find what many people consider the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The TV selection, though, is better, and had all the popular programs I looked for.
Searching leaves much to be desired. When I searched for You Can't Take it With You, the primary result was, oddly enough, the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. Other results included The Godfather, Inception, The Matrix and Shrek.
The upshot: Xbox Video is fine if your tastes mirror contemporary popular Hollywood fare. But if you want something beyond that, it's not for you. Amazon, in particular, has it beat with its excellent movie and TV selection and with its all-you-can-view Prime video services for a monthly fee.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
There are other media-related services and products beyond music, books, gaming, shopping and video. In this section we look each ecosystem's grab-bag.
We live in a world in which many people are no longer content to only consume media; they want to create as well. Amazon has entered that world in big way. It offers considerable services to the large and growing universe of self-publishers with CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing and Advantage, a suite of services that help individuals create, distribute and market books.
Amazon is branching out beyond that. CreateSpace also offers tools to help musicians create their own music CDs, which can then be sold on Amazon.com. And musicians can also distribute their music as MP3s on Amazon's music service.
Apple iCloud is the umbrella term Apple uses to describe its online storage and synchronization services. While iCloud offers some upfront features like an email address and the ability to track equipment and friends with Find My iPhone and Find My Friends, respectively, the main feature of iCloud is that it is invisible. With every change made on one device, iCloud silently transfers the data to your other devices, keeping all devices up to date.
iCloud also allows music, video, books and app purchases from iTunes, the App Store and iBookstore on one device to be immediately available for download on other Apple devices. There is an option to have these purchases automatically downloaded to other authorized devices.
Further, iCloud syncs your position in your content -- like books, audiobooks, videos and podcasts -- across your authorized devices. iCloud also works with iBooks to sync bookmarks, notes and other text, automatically.
Like other online services, iCloud has its share of hiccups and is very much a work in progress. While Apple apps like Pages sync through iCloud without issue, many developers are having trouble implementing syncing into their apps the way iCloud is currently designed to work.
Google has developed a separate platform called Chrome OS. Derived from the company's Chrome browser, Chrome OS serves as a lightweight operating system for users who rely primarily on cloud-based services.
The most common products that use the Chrome OS are Chromebooks -- cloud-centric laptops such as the popular $249 Samsung Chromebook and the high-end touch-enabled Chromebook Pixel. These products utilize Web-based applications, many of which can be found in Google's Chrome Web Store.
The most common products that use the Chrome OS are Chromebooks -- cloud-centric laptops such as the high-end touch-enabled Chromebook Pixel.
Numerous games and other entertainment-oriented offerings are also available in that store; content from the Google Play book, music and magazine collections is accessible on the devices as well. However, because of its dependence on the Web, it doesn't offer a platform for games that demand a system-based component (which means most popular PC-based titles).
Although Skype is currently a VoIP and video communications tool, at some point it could play an important role in Microsoft's entertainment ecosystem, most likely in gameplay. Microsoft has been hiring engineers to port Skype to the Xbox 360 and, although Microsoft isn't providing any details about that port, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that Skype could be used for video chat-enabled gaming, or as a way to find gaming partners.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each of these four battling ecosystems has distinct strengths and weaknesses; there is clearly no single overarching winner.
When it comes to books, magazines and shopping, Amazon is unparalleled. Although Apple's iBooks can be considered somewhat of a success, it doesn't come close to Amazon's dominance in selling both e-books and print books. And while Google has tried to become an online shopping center (and a bookseller), Amazon's success dwarfs it.
Until recently you would have said that Apple's iTunes is the clear winner in the music category. But Apple has fallen somewhat behind other ecosystems because until recently it did not have a streaming music service (although it may make up for lost ground once iTunes Radio hits in the fall). Microsoft's Xbox streaming music service is very good and Google has introduced a similar service. Amazon does not yet have a streaming service, although it does have a well-done cloud-based music player for playing music that you own.
Amazon's video offerings best the other ecosystems, not only in selling DVDs -- subscribers to Amazon Prime can stream all the video they want. And Amazon has taken a page from Netflix and is in the midst of producing its own shows as well.
When it comes to console and computer-based gaming, Microsoft rules, although it's well behind both Google and Apple in mobile gaming. And while mobile gaming is only a small percent of the gaming ecosystem today, that may well change.
The upshot of all this? Despite their best efforts, none of the companies has yet succeeded in creating the kind of complete media ecosystem that can rise above all its competitors. So for now it's still a mix-and-match world, and looks likely to stay that way for a long time to come.