Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Ecosystem eclecticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about ecosystems lately. I’m sure most of you out there are firmly placed in Apple’s ecosystem. By some standards, I am too—my house has four Macs in it (not counting loaners from Apple—I really need to box up the 2016 MacBook and ship it back to Cupertino), three iPads, four iPhones, and an Apple TV.

But what I’m not is exclusive to Apple. For whatever reason, I’ve tried to be eclectic, using services from various providers if the product appeals to me. This is reasonable, I think, but it’s also something that most giant tech companies would prefer I not do. That’s because the purpose of a tech ecosystem—a constellation of interconnected products and services—is to ensnare consumers. It might be a velvet prison, but it’s still a prison—the more you sink into the ecosystem, the harder it is to claw your way out later.

I’m also bought into the Amazon and Google ecosystems. From Amazon I take Prime video and shipping, Kindle ebook readers and ebooks, Comixology comics, and even a Fire Stick that I like to take with me when I travel. From Google I take Google Apps, including Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. My cloud storage is from Dropbox, I pay annual subscriptions for Adobe and Microsoft products, and yeah, I’m one of those people—I’m an Apple Music subscriber.

So I’m all over the place. And I like it that way. It’s not the way for everyone to live, but as someone who writes and talks about technology every day, I find it valuable to be exposed to different products from different companies. And who am I kidding—I’ve largely settled on these products because I like them. I consider them worth the money I spend on them, and I’m willing to work a little harder to break down some of the barriers between ecosystems.

To be honest, being an iOS user makes a lot of this easier. The iPhone’s user base is so large (and so much more predisposed to buy products than the Android user base) that it’s impossible for anyone to ignore. So Google makes all of its stuff available on iOS, and Amazon does too. (Still waiting on that Amazon Instant Video app for Apple TV, though.) It’s a position that the Mac never had, and the platform suffered for it. But as an iOS user, it’s relatively easy to be eclectic.

Except when Apple makes it a bit more difficult. There’s definitely a home field advantage to iOS, and Apple takes advantage of it. One of the top reasons that I’m using iCloud Photo Library is that it can reliably sync photos to and from my iOS devices. That’s not just a credit to the strength of Apple’s cloud services (though it is that, in part—I’ve found iCloud Photo Library to be good and getting better), but to the iOS home-field advantage. Other apps that want to sync your photos from your iPhone to the cloud can only really do so when you launch them manually—so if I’m syncing my photos to Dropbox or Google Photos, I have to launch those apps to get the sync to happen. iCloud Photo Library, on the other hand, runs in a privileged state that allows it to back up at will.

I get why Apple would want to protect my iPhone from giant bandwidth-sucking background processes, but if its own photo service gets access to that functionality, competitors probably should, too. But shoulda, coulda, woulda: The fact is, they don’t, and so iCloud Photo Library has an advantage on iOS. For now, that’s one big reason why I’m using it, and not Google Photos.

DRM (digital rights management, also known as copy protection) is another tool to keep you inside one ecosystem. This is a frustrating one, though fortunately those walls can be knocked down thanks to one of the unstoppable forces of the internet: piracy. I can strip the DRM from Kindle books in case I want to read them on some other platform. I can use TunesKit to strip Apple’s DRM from my purchased iTunes videos so they’ll play through Plex and other media servers and on non-Apple devices. These tools were built with piracy in mind, but they’re also great at freeing the stuff I bought and allowing me more freedom to use it where I choose. And that allows me to have more of an escape hatch to leave an ecosystem someday should I choose to do so.

I also discovered recently that in some quarters, there are unlikely companies that are trying to build bridges between different ecosystems. When I bought “The Force Awakens” on Blu-Ray a little while back, it came with a code for Disney’s Movies Anywhere service. I rolled my eyes at the idea of another movie studio trying to trap me inside their own content-based ecosystem. But Disney Movies Anywhere turns out to be pretty great: You create an account and then link it with your iTunes, Amazon, Ultraviolet, and Google accounts. At that point, every movie I’ve bought from Disney or Pixar or Marvel at any of those services is suddenly available on all of them. In high-definition, even though some of them weren’t bought in that format.

And when I entered the special code for a digital copy of “The Force Awakens” into Disney Movies Anywhere, that movie appeared in my purchased list for Amazon, iTunes, and other services. It wasn’t walled off—it was everywhere. Across all the ecosystems.

The week after I logged in to Disney Movies Anywhere, I was traveling and only had my Amazon Fire Stick with me. My kids wanted to watch a Marvel movie, and I was able to oblige. We watched “Ant-Man” on Amazon Video, a movie I bought… on iTunes.

That’s pretty cool. I’d love to see more of that. When ecosystem barriers come down, it’s better for all of us.

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