The ecosystem era: Its power, its threat, and its weakness

Sydney Myers
Teen Lifestyle Editor from  Dallas, TX
| Published: January 13, 2012

We're all familiar with the term "ecosystem." As mobile enthusiasts, we value an OS's ecosystem. It can really make or break a product. However, the term "ecosystem" is quickly expanding to a new frontier. Where it once only included what could be done on a smartphone, tablet, or between the two, it's now starting to encompass many other consumer products, as it should. However complex and functional the Amazon River may be, it alone does not form the Amazon Rain Forest ecosystem. That is defined by several organisms and components.

You could say that an ecosystem, as it relates to the consumer space, is the combination of devices, services, content, apps, and an OS. As Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and former CEO of Google, put it, it is 'scalable network platforms'. Android, for example, provides apps, services, and content. What makes it an ecosystem is the fact that you can use these apps, services, and content on multiple devices. Hardware is the portal so as exciting as smartphones and tablets have been in the past year or so, the ecosystem era is just now starting and will bring even more exciting developments.


The power of the ecosystem

Last week, I wrote an article about HDTVs and how Google, Microsoft, and Apple could become the new leaders in that realm. It seems strange to some, but it's possible due to the ecosystems of those companies. But it doesn't stop there. The new ecosystem era will allow everything in your life to work together and communicate with one another. Yes, it's great that you can start a movie on your tablet and pick up where you left off on your computer. That's kid stuff. We're talking about everything working together - your TV, phone, refrigerator, tablet, computer, camera, car, and even the lights in your house.

Imagine walking into your house, your phone telling your lighting network to turn on or to use a pre-configured setup you chose, your TV recognizing that it's you and turning on to a specific channel and notifying you of new text messages from your phone and displaying them on the screen as you've requested. Or imagine your refrigerator telling your phone that you need milk, or your tablet telling your computer 'I just got done playing Episode One of The Office, get Episode Two ready to play', or your iPod telling your home theater system what song to start playing when you get home based on what you were listening to in the car. What can make all of this possible? Not just products that were built to sync with certain gadgets, but an ecosystem built around Android, iOS, Windows, or some other OS. It's not just AirPlay being compatible with certain TVs, or speakers with correct docking stations. These products will run as an ecosystem.


Does the ecosystem pose a threat?

That was the fun part. Now onto reality. The problem that some pundits bring out is that once you buy into one ecosystem, you're locked in. The apps, services, content, and even hardware that are configured for that ecosystem cannot be transferred or used for or with another ecosystem.

Molly Wood of CNET recently voiced her concerns. She argues that "Android apps can't run on Apple products, just as Apple apps can't run on Android. No Apple app can run on a Kindle Fire, and not every Android app can run on the Fire. Samsung Apps can only run on Samsung phones and TVs. The growing collection of Windows Phone apps are locked up tight on Windows phones." These are facts. True to the point, as Wood brings out, even Apple said in its Australian legal battle against Samsung that people who buy Samsung's product will "then be Android people and the investment in the apps that they make to purchase on their Galaxy Tab will be something they can't use on an Apple product."


"Consumers should want choices. I don't mind if you actually prefer the other guy's product; I'd like you to evaluate mine fairly and make an appropriate decision as a consumer. It's called competition."


However, is this really a problem? If so, is it a bad problem to have? When CNET presented this "problem" to Google's Eric Schmidt at a session during CES, he quickly dismissed it. Says Schmidt, "Consumers should want choices…It's called competition". I'm sure we can all agree that competition is a good thing. Schmidt himself pointed out earlier that "competition provides value, drives cost down, etc. etc." Is someone actually going to argue that multiple ecosystems means we have to choose one? Yes, perhaps we may not want to choose only one, but that's the sacrifice that has to be made in order to have this kind of integration. In a natural ecosystem, such as the Amazon Rain Forest mentioned in the outset, you can't choose to have warm and cool temperatures at the same time. You must choose which ecosystem you want to live in.

'But there are too many choices', one might say. Not only is there Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, but Samsung has its own app-selection available for its TVs and this is the case with several other products. Are there just too many choices? Tim Baxter, president of sales, marketing, and operations for Samsung Electronics America, answers that question this way, "There's many choices that exist out there. It's our job to be able to articulate the applications and be able to communicate to the consumer relative to their needs." A business user will need something different from what a teen user will need. A parent may need something different from what a college student may need.

Says Eric Schmidt, "What's great about it is that if you don't like it, you don't have to buy that phone, you can buy it from somebody else. You actually have a choice." He went on to say, "I don't mind if you actually prefer the other guy's product; I'd like you to evaluate mine fairly and make an appropriate decision as a consumer" presumably based on your specific needs and wants.


Can this actually happen?

There are two things that could potentially get in the way of this: brands and fragmentation. I've said this before and I'll say it again: The reason why futuristic technologies and gadgets work together in movies is because there are no brands in movies. The writers create these awesome gadgets and then they make them work through movie magic. In the real world, we have brands. Who knows if Samsung will allow their computer to work with an LG TV even if they do both run the same OS? It's certainly possible. If this did end up being a problem, it would not be due to any limitation on the part of the OS, whether it be Android, iOS, or any other platform. No, this incompatibility would be a choice on the part of the manufacturer. I can understand the business logic, but that doesn't mean I like it.

Fragmentation is another problem, though it might not be as big of a problem as it may seem and it's one that only relates to Android. Eric Schmidt likes to refer to it as "differentiation" and contests that which version of the OS a phone ships with is merely a feature that may be used in advertising. Another man who used to work with Andy Rubin, Blake Krikorian, referred to fragmentation as "growing pains". Perhaps fragmentation is not as big of a problem as it has been made out to be. Does it matter what version of an OS a phone ships with as long as you have the option to buy one with a newer or the latest version? When put that way, I'd say the answer is No. When talking about an ecosystem that affects every aspect of our lives, does fragmentation matter? To a certain extent, the answer is Yes. If an ecosystem involves an OS, content, and apps but your device can only run a few of the apps available because of the version of Android is uses, that's a problem. It's one thing when a $200 smartphone doesn't get software updates but when a $2,000 refrigerator doesn't get a software update then you would definitely have the right to be upset by that.

Google is working to correct this, er, situation. According to Eric Schmidt, Google says, "If you want to use our certification you have to, essentially, be conformant to the principles of the Android Market." And the reason for this is "it benefits the whole to have an application that runs on every device." So even if Google doesn't view fragmentation as a problem, at least the situation is being recognized and they are fixing it. However, until it's fixed, I would be weary of spending thousands of dollars on a TV, fridge, or computer that may or may not see needed software updates.

Phones are going to continue to get better and better. We're seeing out-of-this-world displays, new processing technology, an emphasis on camera quality, and 4G technology. But this is not just the era of the smartphone. That era began a few years ago and it has ushered in a new era: the ecosystem era. Smartphones were just the beginning, like a seed that grows into a tree and slowly spawns a new forest, a new ecosystem.