We want to own the (living room, car, bedroom, etc). Variations of this phrase have been around since the dawn of buzzwords, but with beacons and the Internet of Things on the rise, it’s even more relevant today than ever before. While brand loyalty is still very much “a thing” in the tech world—diss an Apple product pretty much anywhere online and you’ll see what I mean—true tech giants understand that no device is an island unto itself. Every company has a slightly different strategy in the war for users’ pockets (and wrists, and homes, and computers…), but one thing is for sure: 2014 is the year we expect the war for users’ ecosystem affections to truly heat up.
Battlefield 1: the living room
Tech leaders have been trying to reach us on our couches for a long time now. If you remember Microsoft’s $425 million purchase of the now-defunct WebTV back in 1997, you get a sense of just how important the living room has always been to the average industry monolith. Although WebTV went belly up, Microsoft is resurrecting their television aspirations by offering their own exclusive content through the Xbox One. As reported by Ars Technica, the company plans to air a “large and diverse slate of shows” through the console, covering everything from feature documentaries and educational videos to straight-up entertainment.
Of course, exclusive content isn’t the only way to implant an ecosystem in users’ living rooms. Apple TV and Google Chromecast—as well as their upcoming set-top Android box—embrace the diversity of multiple content providers. They also take an inclusive approach to other smart devices, allowing users to turn their existing smartphones and tablets into remotes and game controllers. Microsoft also allows similar functionality with their SmartGlass app.
Battlefield 2: the desk
While the advent of tablets had some pundits calling for the death of PCs, people still spend plenty of time at their desktops today. That makes the computer another place for industry leaders to compete. Once again, much of their sales pitch comes down to the ecosystem model and the power of convergent hardware.
Google is doing a lot on this end with their line of, well, pretty much everything. Take Chrome, a Web browser that works across standard PCs, smart devices, and Google’s line of Chromebook computers. The ability to sync browsing history, bookmarks, and settings across devices—and, better yet, automatically—is convenient in a way most techies would have killed for even a decade ago. Google Drive follows a similar model, allowing users to seamlessly carry documents and other files across multiple devices. Add a new and improved Chromebook to the mix, and the process becomes even easier.
Microsoft has followed a similar route of late, especially with regard to Windows 8.x. By signing into their Microsoft account users get full access to their Office Suite documents, files stored in their OneDrive cloud and more. Better yet, a lot of their tablets converge in the most literal way possible: Several of the devices run a full-on version of Windows 8, making it easy for users to run their favorite desktop applications on the go or sync settings from their tablet to a full desktop PC running the same OS.
Though Apple’s smart devices offer some nice cross-device functionality—including bookmark syncing with Safari and the Remote app, which lets users control other Apple products from their touchscreens—Cupertino is arguably the last dog in the race, with fewer shared features than their two biggest competitors. That could be changing soon, however, with the so-called “iAnywhere” platform rumored by CNET and other tech news outlets.
Battlefield 3: the body
Wearables represent the most untested weapon in the battle for customer loyalty, but they could potentially be the most powerful. This is one area where Google appears to have a big advantage over the competition. Google Glass, a product countless techies have been salivating over for what feels like decades now, incited new interest all over again when they recently reopened the Explorer Program for just 24 hours. Then there’s the Android Wear OS, or as Google puts it, “Information that moves with you.”
With a Wear-enabled watch and Google Now dictation software, Android users will find it even easier to check Hangout messages, Gmail notifications and Google Maps directions directly from their wrists. Although Android Wear has yet to reach the general market, you can bet the breadth of use cases and the number of manufacturers willing to get on board will be equal to or greater than their smartphone presence.
Apple and Microsoft are rumored to have similar devices on the slate, but the news thus far has been just that—rumors. CNN reports that Apple’s entry into the market will be fitness-related (a distinct possibility considering their early work with Nike), while a TechCrunch report claims Microsoft has been spending millions on augmented reality and head-borne computing technology.
Will Microsoft and Apple eventually pose a threat to Google in the wearables market? The answer, to quote my Magic 8-Ball, “it is decidedly so.” But for now, there’s no doubt that Mountain View has the lead. If Google wants to avoid a Tortoise and the Hare situation, they’ll have to continue brainstorming new devices and avoid resting on the laurels of Glass and the first iteration of Android Wear.
Battlefield 4: the car
First (seemingly), Apple announced iOS in the Car, which brings Apple Maps, Siri and iTunes directly to your center console. Like nearly all Apple products, the system only works with the inclusion of an iPhone or iPad. As great as iOS in the Car may be for Apple enthusiasts, it alienates a large portion of the market.
Google recognized this and quickly got to work on their own automotive offering. The Android in-dash system promises to offer the same conveniences as iOS in the Car, but with one major differentiator—it’s built into the vehicle. Android users and iPhone owners alike can (theoretically) get behind the wheel and enjoy Google Maps navigation and Google Now commands.
Last (but not really), Microsoft has thrown its hat in the infotainment racetrack. Little do many people know, Microsoft has been supplying cars with software for over 15 years, but a lot’s changed since the death of the tape deck. Once they saw Apple and Google were encroaching on their territory, Microsoft decided to double down on a modernized automotive system that resembles their current mobile OS. Isn’t that exactly what their competitors are doing? Yes, but Microsoft hopes to edge out the competition by placing an emphasis on making driving safer and simpler through UI.
Ecosystems are the future – and the future is here
A lot has changed since the turn of the century. These days, users don’t just weigh the pros and cons of laptops and desktops; they have to decide which OS will run best on their PC, phone, tablet, wrist, car and a slew of other technology we haven’t even seen yet. Who currently leads the device convergence race? It’s impossible to tell.
Every company has something unique to bring to the table—be it Microsoft’s gaming systems, Apple’s car integration or Google’s wearables—and we’re sure each of the big three will bring out even more guns once consumers start to expect more from their purchases. Either way, one thing is clear, it’s time for you to pick a side.
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