Torn between two ecosystems

Google impressed at last week’s I/O conference. They demoed Android 2.2, “Froyo”, which is already available for Google’s own Nexus One phone. (It’s coming “soon” for carrier-branded handsets like Verizon’s Droid Incredible and Sprint’s EVO.) They showed mSpot, a new service that does a lot of what LaLa.com did before Apple bought it and shut it down: allow people to upload their entire music libraries and then stream them to any Mac, Windows PC or Android handset. The bar, it is raised.

In particular, Froyo is over twice as fast as the previous version of Android (2.1, or “Eclair”), the webkit-based browser—basically Chrome-lite—is faster still, and it supports a fully functional implementation of Adobe’s Flash 10.1, meaning it can display all those web pages where Safari on the iPhone and iPad just show you that silly little blue Lego. Add to that the nearly standard specs for this generation of Android phones—480×800 AMOLED screens, removable batteries, 5MP or better cameras, with flashes, microSD card expansion—and the still expanding Android Marketplace—where you can find office suites like QuickOffice and Documents To Go, EPUB ebook readers, Skype, and well, a functional equivalent to just about anything in the iTunes App Store—and we got ourselves a ball game!

A lot of people compare the iPhone to a phone like the HTC Incredible and just look at the hardware. But the game is really much bigger than that. You’re not buying a phone. You’re buying into an ecosystem. It’s like marrying into a family, and bears just as much forethought and caution. You’re not just looking at an Android-based smartphone. To get the most out of it, you’re going to want to couple it with all the other parts of the Google ecosystem. Gmail for your email and contacts. Google Calendar for your scheduling. Amazon and MSpot for your media. Google bookmarks. Google Chrome as your desktop browser. Google Reader for your RSS feds. I won’t suggest your switch from Twitter to Google Buzz for social networking, but it’s there.

Right now I’m about halfway submerged in the shiny, multicolor Google lifestyle. I do use Gmail, Calendar, Reader. I’ve used Chrome as my default browser. I’ve kept my documents in Google Docs. It wouldn’t be hard at all for me to walk into a Verizon store, plop down a couple of Benjamins—and pay AT&T their Early Termination Fee, since I’ve only been with them just over a year—and walk out with an Incredible. (I’d have to wait to play with it until I got it home, though, since AMOLED screens are nearly useless in sunlight. Hell, even vampires do better these days.) The Android, it calls. Plus, just look at this list of five reasons to be afraid of Apple. Why wouldn’t I want to go all in with a company whose motto is “don’t be evil”?

But Apple. Ah, Apple. There’s a reason the apple features as the symbol of temptation in everything from Genesis to Snow White. Mister Jobs knows him some pretty when he sees it. iPhone owners have a more emotional, visceral connection to their phones than even other smartphone owners. My iPhone 3G is damn near grafted to me, and the iPhone HD due out just two weeks is even more gorgeous.

Where Google preaches open and flexible, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, Apple tells us not to worry our pretty little heads, they’ll make everything all right. As long as you agree with His Steveness—and why wouldn’t you, he has impeccable taste—you’ll get everything you need.

And Apple, if they do as expected, is set to bring the ecosystem to play too. We—yes, that is a mouse in my pocket—expect Apple to announce more than just the new pretty iPhone HD at WWDC on June 7th. We expect them to announce that email, calendar and contacts syncing components of MobileMe will be free to any iPhone user. We expect them to announced iTunes 10 with the new “iTunes Live” feature to allow syncing your whole iTunes library to Apple’s new ginormous datacenter in North Carolina, from whence you can stream it all to your iPhone HD (and maybe 3GS, but probably not the older, RAM-challenged original iPhone and 3G). Basically, we expect them to at the very least match Google feature for feature. And maybe up the ante with Steve’s “one more thing.”

And it would just as easy for me to fall into the welcoming sleekness of the Apple ecosystem. I already buy my music and movies from iTunes, so why not my books as well? iBooks will be built into iPhone OS4. I could move my calendar, contacts and email into MobileMe. My email address, jeff@kirv.in, already redirects to Gmail, so I’d just have the redirect point to MobileMe instead. Same with iTunes Live. My media collection is in iTunes already, so this is a no-brainer. And from there, I could switch to Safari as my desktop browser so I can sync my bookmarks, and eventually just buy a shiny 27” iMac as my new media center. And hey, at least Apple is the devil I know. Look at this list of five reasons to be afraid of Google.

But wait a minute. I’m supposed to be a Buddhist, also known as “the middle way.” I’m bipolar. I’m a Gemini. I’m a gorram registered Independent. Why can’t I have both?

This is, after all, the true strength of the cloud. And the cloud is bigger than Google. It’s bigger than Apple. I can keep my bookmarks in Xmarks. I can buy my books from Google Editions, which will sell ebooks sans DRM so they can be read anywhere, on anything. I’ll keep buying media from iTunes, because Apple’s just made it so darn easy, and at least the music is DRM-free. I use Firefox as my desktop browser, Thunderbird and Lightning for email and scheduling. Seesmic for social networking, Evernote for random data, Instapaper for saved articles, Dropbox for my files and manuscripts, Bing as my default search engine. And of course, a jailbroken iPhone that has all the features of OS4 on OS 3.13, synced to Google for contacts, email and calendar.

This might not work forever. As the rivalry between Google and Apple heats up, they might not interoperate—a fancy word for “play nice”—as well as they do today. I might be forced into MobileMe if I want to keep push synchronization on my iPhone HD. But for as long as I can, I’m going to avoid going “all in” with any one company. Because really, I’m afraid of them all.

Pick your ecosystem carefully

There are shaping up to be four big ecosystems in computing. As all four diversify into the categories below, I’m noticing that a lot of users are standardizing on using everything from a single vendor, a siloing of the market rather than embracing variety. You can do nearly everything you need to do with offerings from any one of them, and they tend to work better if you don’t mix and match. But is it really possible to put all your eggs in one basket?

Microsoft

Operating System

Windows

Web Browser

Internet Explorer

Email

Microsoft Outlook/Live Mail

Instant Messaging

Live Messenger

Photo Albums

Live Photo Albums

Search Engine

Live Search

Office Suite

Microsoft Office

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Live Mesh/Live Sync

Blogging

Live Writer

Home Theater

Windows Media Center

Phone Platform

Windows Mobile

Portable Media

Zune

Media Management

Windows Media/Zune

Console Gaming

Xbox

Microsoft has, by far, the best selection of the bunch, with every single category I could think of covered. They have gone out of their way to provide solutions for the office, living room and on the go. Some of the options here aren’t best-in-class (though I’d say the Zune is better than the iPod classic and IE 8 can give Firefox and Chrome a run for their money if you give it chance), but they all work. And more importantly, they all work together. If you use the software and services listed above, they interoperate cleanly and efficiently, exactly the way conventional wisdom says Microsoft doesn’t do. The biggest problem Microsoft has is the snarky haters who have their minds made up and won’t give them a break.

Google

Operating System

 

Web Browser

Google Chrome

Email

Gmail

Instant Messaging

Google Talk

Photo Albums

Picasa

Search Engine

Google

Office Suite

Google Docs

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Google Docs

Blogging

Blogger

Home Theater

 

Phone Platform

Android

Portable Media

 

Media Management

 

Console Gaming

 

Google has a lot of gaps in their ecosystem offerings, but they make up for it with even better integration than Microsoft. Once you start using one Google product (Gmail seems to be the most popular "gateway drug" aside from search itself), it’s all too easy to start using the rest. But where Google wins in interoperability, they lose in power. Google Docs, for example, is fine for light use, but most users wouldn’t think of using it to completely replace a more powerful desktop office suite. Google also lacks an OS and virtually any entertainment options. Even Google’s Android platform offers only the most basic media playback.

Apple

Operating System

OS/X

Web Browser

Safari

Email

Mail.app

Instant Messaging

iChat

Photo Albums

iPhoto

Search Engine

 

Office Suite

iWork

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

MobileMe

Blogging

 

Home Theater

Apple TV

Phone Platform

iPhone

Portable Media

iPod

Media Management

iTunes

Console Gaming

 

For Apple, interoperability is king, but it comes at the cost of choice. Apple’s offerings work seamlessly together, often appearing to be one organic system, but heaven help you if you need to replace one of them because it doesn’t entirely meet your needs. Their gaps are fairly minor, and the lock-in provided by iTunes over portable media and home theater offerings keeps a lot of users in their camp.

Linux/Open Source

Operating System

Linux

Web Browser

Mozilla Firefox

Email

Mozilla Thunderbird

Instant Messaging

Pidgin

Photo Albums

Varies by distro

Search Engine

 

Office Suite

OpenOffice/Sunbird

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

 

Blogging

WordPress

Home Theater

MythTV

Phone Platform

Linux

Portable Media

RockBox

Media Management

Mozilla Songbird

Console Gaming

 

The open source route is for the free spirits out there who so don’t want to be in thrall to one company that they’re willing to cobble together everything themselves, even when it doesn’t necessarily even try to work together. Think of these as the polar opposites to the Apple users. A lot of this stuff is build your own, but at least most of it doesn’t require you to compile it yourself anymore. It’s also so fragmented between different Linux distros (KDE and Gnome both have their own photo managers, and there are others as well if you don’t like those), that any kind of consensus-based interoperability is unlikely.

Conclusions, my ecosystem

I tried to stay within a single ecosystem, and my life would probably be easier if I did. But because of the various gaps or missing functionality, I’ve been forced to mix and match a bit, fully knowing that that would be up to me to find my own ways to makes the pieces interoperate.

Operating System

Windows Vista

Web Browser

Mozilla Firefox

Email

Microsoft Outlook

Instant Messaging

Google Talk

Photo Albums

Live Photo Album or Picasa

Search Engine

Google

Office Suite

Microsoft Office

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Live Mesh

Blogging

OneNote/Word/Live Writer

Home Theater

Windows Media Center

Phone Platform

Windows Mobile

Portable Media

Windows Mobile

Media Management

Windows Media Player

Console Gaming

Xbox 360

Most of my ecosystem is based on Microsoft offerings, but I’ve swapped out a bit from the Google and Open Source stacks where appropriate. Firefox performs better on my netbook than IE 8, and the IE Tab plugin allows me to use the IE rendering engine when I need it. Google Talk is lighter and less noisy than Live Messenger, and I find Google’s search results a little bit more reliable than Live Search’s. My blogging solution is also a three-headed monster with some quick posts done in Live Writer but most of my blogging done in OneNote for early drafts, and then Word for posting. I’ve also bypassed Zune in favor of Windows Media Player and my Windows Mobile smartphone, but I know people that use both.

What are your choices? Do you stick mostly to a single vendor, or do you play the field?