With new devices that are all connected and communicating with each other being released, the operating system that brings it all together is increasingly important. Currently there are three major players – Apple, Google and Microsoft - each offering a unique mix of hardware, software and services. Let’s take a look at how each of them stack up.
No other company understands the importance of ecosystem like Apple, at least in terms of products. Given that Apple designs its own hardware and creates their own software, it has consistently delivered an excellent experience to users. Apple’s MacBook and iMac computers run the Mac OS, while its relatively new portable devices, the iPhone and iPad run iOS. The two speak fluently and effortlessly. Apple also has its iPod line up and the Apple TV, both of which work really well with Mac OS. The essential cog in the Apple machine is iTunes. This multimedia software connects and syncs all your Apple devices, provides a central online store for all content (music, books, movies, TV shows, apps and more), and allows you to backup and restore your Apple device.
Apple also has what no other player can claim to have, a thriving accessory market place. Whether it is due to perceived dominance or a unified connector across devices, many third party accessory makers choose to make accessories for the iPad and iPhone before they make a compatible version for other devices. This gives Apple a significant competitive advantage.
However, Apple struggled most with its online offering. Right from the launch of MobileMe in 2008, the service didn’t perform like it was meant to. It was later scrapped and a new service was introduced in its place – iCloud. The new iCloud service provides capabilities to sync and shareall your content across Apple devices. In addition to Personal Information Management (Email, Contacts, Calendar), iCloud also stores your multimedia content – both purchased and created, as well as iWork documents and makes them available on all your Apple devices. Lastly, you can also backup your iOS devices to the iCloud automatically so you have all your data saved remotely in a secure manner. You have initial free storage of 5GB and there are paid tiers to upgrade up to a total of 55GB.
Microsoft is one of the oldest software providers in the industry. Most of us have used at least one of its products in some capacity or another and have a love-hate relationship with them. Its focus has been on software and apart from some dabbling in peripherals; it hasn’t made any wide strides in hardware.
Microsoft’s PC offering is its Windows Operating System with its essential office suite companion Microsoft Office. Together, hand in hand, they still power the productivity in a majority of offices worldwide.
Instead of developing a new operating system for tablets, Microsoft has encouraged its hardware partners to create new form factors for laptops and tablets that run Windows 8. The current generation of Laptops have detachable keyboards, twisting screens, screens that can be raised; all in an attempt to make them touch friendly while at the same time retaining the processing power of a laptop and the comfort of a keyboard. This may put a lot of long time Microsoft users out of their comfort zone, because not only is the hardware changing, so is the software. Windows 8 now features a complete overhaul of the interface that is heavily touch driven.
On the mobile phone, Microsoft has introduced Windows Phone 8 with a variety of hardware partners. Nokia, HTC and Samsung are one of the first manufacturers to present Windows Phone offerings.
Microsoft also has another card to play, the Xbox 360. Not just a gaming console, the Xbox 360 now serves as a complete media center solution in the living room. You can play music, buy and rent TV or movies, watch content from your social networks and more.
Microsoft is not a stranger to online services. Having owned Hotmail.com, Microsoft’s web services have received branding changes, improvements and complete overhauls over the past few years. Currently sitting at the center of its online services is your Microsoft account - created on Hotmail.com, outlook.com or live.com – and the associated SkyDrive. With a free space of 7GB, you can store any kind of files you want, synchronize Microsoft Office documents, upload and share your multimedia files. In fact Microsoft Office’s desktop version has SkyDrive support built right into it and there is also an online version of Office that allows for direct editing within the browser.
SkyDrive helps you share data from one device to all the others. You can take a picture from your Windows Phone, to see it on your TV with the Xbox and to print it from your PC with the SkyDrive application.
Google is the only company of the trio that started off online. As a matter of fact, it still is. One of Google’s biggest successes after its search engine has been Gmail and its included Calendar and Contacts features. The launch of Gmail with 1GB of free space caused waves as most email providers only offered a meager few MBs.
Google has come a long way since. Its mobile operating system – Android - has a dominant presence on mobile phones and is making a strong headway with tablets. With Android, Google has worked with multiple hardware partners to make its operating system available to the widest audience. The result being Android available in a variety of form factors, sizes and price points.
Similarly on the PC, Google has Chrome OS which is primarily a web driven operating system that ‘apps’ are being developed for. In contrast to Windows and Mac OS, there is little you can do with a Chrome OS PC when you’re not connected to the web and is made for an always-connected audience.
Unlike Apple, Google has always been online first. At the center of all communication lies your Google account, which not only syncs your contacts, email and calendar, but is also your central login to all of Google’s services and products.
Google Docs, which is now part of Google Drive, is an online office suite which lets you create, edit and share documents right in your browser. Google Drive which offers 5GB of free space (in addition to 7GB on Gmail) can store not only your Google Docs, but also photos and videos captured. So whether you’re sharing them with your network on Google+ or just storing them online, Google Drive ensures you have access to it anywhere you go. Google has also released a customized version of Android with a built in browser for devices connected to the TV and aptly named it Google TV. The response has been lukewarm at best and the platform leaves much to be desired.
For now, it doesn’t seem like there is a clear winner. Given that devices sales result in ecosystem buy in, Google and Apple are ahead of Microsoft who has a fair bit of catching up to do. However it would be myopic to count Microsoft out right now. All three companies are moving at a pace that is faster than ever. While Apple and Google have one OS for the PC, and another for mobile and tablets alike; Microsoft is attempting to unify the tablet and the PC with a single OS and another one for phones only. Competition is good, it means users have choice; one they can make based on their personal preferences and feature list. And as long as we have competition, we will have an industry with players that are always in an attempt to out-innovate each other; and the winner will always be the consumer.
The writer is a digital marketing professional and an early adopter of all things digital.
If you ask me, I’m still not tied completely into one ecosystem. I use an Android phone and have done so for the past few years; and that is because I’m very strongly connected with the Google suite of services. My Gmail (along with Contacts and Calendar) drive my life, I rely on Google Maps to get almost anywhere new and use Google Docs and Drive to create and store documents online. For a tablet, I use an iPad so I can still get an understanding of the iOS devices. My PC however is Windows based as I find Microsoft Office on it to be far easier and quicker to use.
My personal ratings for the Ecosystems:
Google – 4/5
Apple – 4/5
Microsoft – 3/5