Thinking About Platforms and Ecosystems

Thinking About Platforms and Ecosystems

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and just move forward

While the banner on the site you're reading says Windows, the truth is I've always used and tested a variety of non-Microsoft platforms, hardware, apps and services. I do this many times to see where the competition is with regards to Microsoft's solutions. But I'm also not shy about using non-Microsoft solutions when they're better. This isn't about cheerleading a company, which confuses some people. It's about making sure that all of us—me, you, everyone—are using the best products. So how do we choose?

This article is not inspired in any way by Farhad Manjoo's February New York Times column, How to Survive the Next Wave of Technology Extinction, as I've been thinking—and writing, and speaking—about this stuff for many years now. But I do want to reference his article because he left out a very crucial piece of the puzzle. And I'm going to reference it a lot.

In that article, Mr. Manjoo notes that "five behemoths"—Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft—are competing with a "dizzying array of start-ups"—Dropbox, Pandora, many others—to hook you into their digital ecosystems, which is both fair and true. And then after a discussion aimed at helping consumers avoid investing in losing ecosystems like Nook, he comes to the following conclusions.

Buy Apple hardware. Use Google's services. Buy media from Amazon.

My initial reaction to this advice was, to put it mildly, outrage. As it was for many others, for various reasons. My anger at this advice, however, was multi-layered.

First, the article explicitly mentions Microsoft as being among the "five behemoths" and then goes on to utterly ignore the firm's many offerings. In fact, that one mention is the only time the word "Microsoft" even appears in the article. (So nothing new from the perspective of how the New York Times does things.)

Second, life isn't this pat. Just ... buy Apple hardware and use Google's services? Seriously, we're supposed to just be lemmings? Can't we think for ourselves instead?

Third, and perhaps most egregiously, what about productivity? One of the things I really think Microsoft got right this year with its "mobile first, cloud first" strategy is the notion of dual use. We're not just consumers, and we're not just employees of whatever company, expected to work from 9 to 5 for five days a week. We're people. And we need to be productive, just as we want to be entertained.

The productivity (and dual use) thing is doubly interesting to me—and ever more notably absent from Mr. Manjoo's article—because I think it extends far past traditional digital productivity tasks. In other words, it's not just about writing a document in a word processing app. To me, it's about being productive—efficient—in everything we do within the context of digital ecosystems. Technology is a means to an end, not an end.

Here's one obvious example. Let's say it's a few years ago, and you're a music loving technology enthusiast. You're a PC user and you've purchased a variety of Apple devices over the years, use iTunes to manage your music collection on your PC, and sync that music to those devices. And life is good. But you like the spontaneity of radio, so you also use Pandora for a radio-like experience on those devices. And then Spotify comes along with a variety of subscription offerings and a more curated experience, so you begin mixing and matching between the services and apps so you can get a fuller music experience. It works, but it's all disconnected. Each has its own account, its own app, a unique user experience.

I spend a lot of time and effort trying to simplify things. One of the reasons I like Xbox Music—a real outlier in this space—is that it combines all of the best features of Pandora, Beats Music, Spotify, iTunes, iTunes Match, and Google Play Music into a single service. (Well, all but one. Let's not get pedantic.) I use it, and write about, because I think this kind of efficiency is useful. It's more productive, in other words, for me to subscribe to a single service than it is for me to use some combination of free and paid services, and to manually manage a legacy, ripped collection of music on a PC.

What I just stepped through there quickly and without much detail is a lot more nuanced than "buy media Amazon [and use it on] Apple hardware." But of course it is. Real life is always more nuanced than pat statements from a weekly column written on a deadline.

20 years ago, I hated Microsoft and everything it stood for. Like Steve Jobs, I thought the company was a second-rate thief, stealing others' ideas and implementing them in their own products, products that were inexplicably more popular than those from the companies they were stealing from. I resented the company for this.

My opinion of Microsoft improved over the years as Microsoft's offerings improved. (A logical enough process that still eludes some critics.) The first eye-opener, as I recall it now, was Microsoft Word 6, which I saw in early beta form through my wife's workplace, which was working up documentation for the product at the time. And then early versions of Windows 4.0, which became Windows 95, and Office 95, and so on. These weren't just "like" competing products—the Mac, whatever—they were better. And there was an interesting intersection with Microsoft between popularity and superiority. The firm went from also-ran to the obvious focus.

Previous to this, I stuck only with those technology products that I thought were superior, even if they made little difference in the marketplace. The Amiga is a typical example. IBM's OS/2 for a little while. I've always been fascinated by the underdog, which explained my mid-to-late 1990's fascination with Linux and open source, and with Be and Be OS. But at some point, you grow up and realize what I mentioned earlier: Technology isn't an end. It's a means to an end.

When you think back to the late 1990's in particular, and the early 2000s, Microsoft was it. Windows was computing. If you wanted to create a document, you did it in Windows. If you want to play a game, you did it in Windows. If you wanted to read news and find out what was going on in the world, you did it Windows. Email? Windows. Online services? Windows. It was all Windows. My decision to focus on Microsoft and Windows wasn't religious or partisan in any way, it was just common sense: Everyone used it and, heck, I actually liked it quite a bit by then. Perfect.

Thanks to Steve Jobs and Apple, that all changed. Apple was never able to beat Windows and the PC, even though many could—and still can—make a credible case that the Mac is superior to Windows in meaningful ways. Instead, Apple changed the world by moving past the PC, or at least around the PC, to create new markets for the modern music player, smart phone and tablet, and for the ecosystems that surround such devices. This model has proven so popular that others—including those "behemoths"—have adopted it, or much of it, for their own as well.

So today we have choices. For many people—most, I would imagine—checking email, browsing the web, playing casual games, engaging in social networking, watching movies, listening to music, reading books, and other leisure time (or at least casual) activities are more enjoyable—more natural, even—on a tablet or smart phone than is doing so on a PC. That doesn't mean the PC is going away, as many iPad and tablet proponents believed until the tablet market slowed dramatically this year. It means that the PC is reverting to its traditional productivity-based strengths, where it will remain dominant, and is adapting to this new world with transforming 2-in-1 designs that will or will not resonate with consumers based on how well Microsoft can continue improving Windows and marketing that to a consumer base that is increasingly focused only on Apple and Google.

When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, I immediately adopted it and wrote about it ad nauseam—so much so that people often asked whether I'd be changing the name of site to "SuperSite for iPhone" that summer. The iPhone was (is) awesome. Yes, in 2007 it lacked the connectivity it so desperately needed with the PC side of the fence, which was a big focus of mine at the time. But Apple fixed that issue over the years. There are no problems there now at all.

After owning and using four iPhones full-time, I switched to Windows Phone in 2010, starting with a prototype device that I got that July and took to Europe that August. I haven't looked back since, and still think Windows Phone generally, and the Lumia handsets I use specifically, are superior to the competition. But I have looked sideways since. I've owned virtually every iPhone ever made—I was loaned but did not buy the buggy and terrible iPhone 4, for example—and I've owned many Android handsets. I've owned every single iPad model, and several Android tablets. Kindles and Kindle Fires. Digital media set-top boxes of all kinds. Virtually all of the major video game consoles and handhelds sold in the past decade. And so on.

And what all this experience and money spent tells me, when combined with the natural forces that are shaping the industry in which we live and breathe—changing, yes, even Apple into a more open maker of more open platforms—is simple.

Almost none of this matters.

Aside from some glaring and unfortunate holes, you will be able to consume the content you care about and get work done on virtually any platform and, more important, any combination of platforms.

This is fairly profound. It's also fairly new and evolving all the time.

And to be clear, this using means device types of all kinds—a Windows PC, an iPad and an Android handset, perhaps—each with a mix of services and digital ecosystems.

An example.

This summer, I brought—among other things, as noted in What I Use (Home Swap): What Worked, What Didn't—an iPod touch 5G along for the trip. I didn't mention this device in that article because I knew I'd be writing about it in some way later. And while a quickie mention here to make a point wasn't what I intended, what the heck. You'll get the idea.

Here's what I did with the iPod. I moved almost all of Apple's apps into a folder and got them off the home screen. I installed Google Chrome (replacing Safari), Google Play Music (replacing iTunes), Google Maps, Kindle (replacing iBooks) and Audible (replacing iTunes), and other non-Apple apps. With Google Play Music, I subscribed to Google's music subscription service, All Access—free for 30 days—and then downloaded my entire music collection to the device for offline play. In doing so, I experienced a different kind of iPod, one that still had access to the vast and superior iOS app ecosystem, but used mostly Google services and apps. It worked great.

This experience can be replicated across different hardware platforms to varying degrees, though again there are gaps. Google is available mostly just through the web on Windows (and Windows Phone) and not in native app form. Apple is not ever going to port iTunes to Android. And some others. But the fact remains that you can mix and match hardware, apps and services, picking and choosing the ones that make the most sense for you.

So, again, I happen to prefer Xbox Music and I use it on all my devices. And while I feel alone in the world on this point, it's a great service, especially when combined with Xbox Music Pass. There are native apps on Windows, Windows Phone, Android, iOS (iPhone/iPod touch), Xbox 360 and Xbox One. You can access it on the web, which means it works fine on Mac, Chromebook and elsewhere. It's everywhere I want to be, or will want to be. It's a good choice ... for me.

Instead of being bound to pat generalizations like those offered by Farhad Manjoo, you should instead choose the products that move you, that work the way you want. And you can increasingly do so in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. You could load up an iPad (or, soon, an Android tablet) with Microsoft Office, Amazon's Kindle and Audible apps, and Google Play music. You could use a Windows Phone with Spotify or Apple's Beats Music. You could go Chromebook and still access Office Online or Xbox Music.

A grid or table describing these cross-relationships would be difficult to construct and of course things change all the time. Just this past week, for example, brought its Prime Instant Video service to Android phones, extending the service beyond the devices—Amazon's own, of course, but also iOS, Roku, and a few video game systems—on which it was previously offered. This makes the service more viable for those of us who wish to mix and match on the hardware side, and I expect this service, and others, to continue branching out.

For those of us on the Microsoft side of the fence, the revolutions of the past several years have been disconcerting. And that makes sense: The world was the way it was for 20 years, and now it's different. But this is an opportunity to branch out and pick the best solutions in hardware, apps and services. To use a PC or even a Mac if we are content creators, or use a Chromebook if we only need the occasional use of a real keyboard. To use an iPad, Android tablet or Windows tablet/2-in-1 if we want to consume content. And to use the smart phone—and smart phone platform—of our choice. Yes, there are holes in that app/service availability grid, and these holes will color our choices. But since everyone's needs are different, generally—and, more important—differ from device to device—anyone can do a little bit of research and determine which products and services work best for them.

Anytime a conversation about cross platform solutions comes up on this site, I feel the need to reassure what I take to be an increasingly nervous and restless Microsoft/Windows user base to relax. Here in Microsoft-land we still struggle with dead platforms like Zune and Windows Media Center that many still find quite useful, and they're not happy with the way things have gone. Likewise, there are many who distrust Google (understandable) or aren't happy with the lingering hubris issues at Apple (also understandable).

But it's time to get over the past and these often-petty and almost religious issues and move on to the fine art of being productive and efficient. And that's something that involves Microsoft quite a bit. If you are a Microsoft guy, so to speak, Microsoft's apps and services are available everywhere, and the few missing bits—OneDrive for Business on Mac, Office for Android tablets, and so on—will obviously be addressed quickly. There is no reason at all not to consider all available platforms, but you should choose the ones that make sense for you.

Many times, those platforms will be Microsoft's. Many times they won't. Whatever.

My own choices will likely trend towards the Microsoft side of the fence, not because of inertia, but because—remember—I've been testing and using rival platforms for many years. I'm not as susceptible to that "grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" syndrome because I already understand the relative strengths and weaknesses in each platform and ecosystem. And with regards to those "connector" services that Mr. Manjoo recommends because they work everywhere—Evernote, Dropbox—I'd just say that that role has been nicely filled this year by Microsoft, a bigger company with more resources. So I'd personally recommend OneNote and OneDrive for those types of things. Indeed, I use both daily, and on multiple platforms.

Point being, Microsoft and its platforms and ecosystems play a role in the future. The only question for you is how big of a role for your own purposes.

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