In the first part of this series, we spoke about how messaging services and payments are limiting consumers’ ability to freely move between ecosystems and interact with friends and family in meaningful ways. In this next installment, we will talk about how cloud services, app stores and wearables also affect the user experience and limit user choice and portability across ecosystems.
Cloud services and app stores
The lack of interoperability between some App Stores and Cloud Services has become yet another barrier to users’ ability to switch between ecosystems. For example, take Google’s cloud services for Android devices like Google Photos, Gmail, Calendar and Maps, arguably Google’s most successful apps. All these apps exist on both Android and iOS and, for the most part, have the same functionality across all platforms (or at least as many features as iOS will allow Google to have). But in the end, when you use Google’s apps, its ecosystem does not have issues with you switching between devices or even taking your data elsewhere. The same goes for Microsoft’s apps like OneNote, OneDrive Office Suite and even Xbox. This device-agnostic approach gives users more freedom in terms of what device they choose and it doesn’t punish them for switching devices. Apple recently encountered major backlash from privacy and security experts for its controversial plans to not only scan iCloud photos for CSAM, but also to check for matches on client-side devices.
Apple’s approach forces users to keep all their applications and backups of those applications on Apple’s iCloud. Users can have a multitude of issues with an iCloud account. For example, there are no easy ways to move content to a new platform, other than moving to Google Photos. Exporting maxes out at 1,000 photos or requires the iCloud for Windows application. Apple only introduced the ability to transfer iCloud photos and videos to Google Photos in 2021. However, even that has limits since file formats that are not supported by Google Photos will not transfer (including some RAW files and Live Photos).
This is in stark contrast to Google’s Photos app, which gives users full control of their images and gives them access to a complete offline backup of their images. Most of the tools for moving from iOS to Android, whether powered by Google or Samsung, can only back up what’s physically on the device. While this is great, some apps also save their settings in the cloud, and iCloud is the default cloud on iPhones. This means that many devices app settings like WhatsApp save their configuration files in a closed cloud ecosystem, making it challenging to move saved messages across platforms. As more apps continue to rely on cloud saves for configuration file backups, this problem will only get worse and make switching even more painful than it should be.
Note-taking apps are another area where user experiences can vary wildly from one platform to another. Some apps are inherently more cross-platform than others. For example, with Microsoft OneNote, virtually all notes are easily accessible and usable across all devices. Evernote provides a similar note-taking experience, though slightly different; while both function as a standalone app, OneNote also has some OneDrive integrations that improve the user experience and make the user more dependent on Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud. Google’s Keep app works across multiple platforms and allows for sharing between Google Docs and other 3rd party apps. That said, Keep itself has no way of quickly exporting its complete set of notes to other devices, making users more reliant on Google’s cloud.
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One of the most common issues for users switching between cloud and app ecosystems is the lack of portability of apps across those platforms. This lack of portability means that even if a user has paid a developer for an application on one platform, they are almost certainly going to have to pay that developer once again to use that application again on the new platform. This makes a user’s switch from one platform to another even more costly. This isn’t limited to apps either—it also translates to purchased movies, music and other intangibles like playlists. But some content platforms are inherently more cross-platform than others, like Spotify, which is available on virtually every device, form factor and operating system. It’s worth noting that, in the end, most of these platforms are really only leasing this content to you—you can never actually take it with you once you leave their ecosystem.
Wearables are one of the most aggressive areas of competition among the different players in the industry, with some devices only working in specific ecosystems. The most obvious of these examples is the Apple Watch, which does not work on any other smartphone than the iPhone. Apple’s Watch has undergone many generations of improvements and is arguably one of the best wearables on the market; however, it is only available to iOS users. Unless they find an equivalent smartwatch to the Apple Watch, most Apple Watch users will likely stick with the iPhone and the Apple ecosystem. Samsung, surprisingly, did the same thing with the Galaxy Watch 4 series, which requires the Samsung Health app on a Samsung phone for full functionality. It’s worth noting that these smart watches collect a lot of sensitive personal medical information. These companies could seek to use their watches as another data source for developing new products and services.
Alternatively, you have companies like Fitbit, which is now part of Google. Fitbit’s wearables are very much smartphone and mobile ecosystem agnostic, focusing on the device’s hardware and software user experience, irrespective of the operating system. That might change over time as Google gets more involved in Fitbit’s roadmap and integrates it further into Android Wear. Still, I believe that Google may choose to remain platform agnostic to maximize its potential user base, given Fitbit’s innovations already support Android and iOS. There are also other companies like Garmin that remain independent and platform agnostic, and those could potentially poach users from Google if it chooses to close Fitbit’s current openness. There are also companies like Oura, with its smart ring, and WHOOP, with its activity band, who could offer alternatives to Apple, Samsung and Google.
Watches and fitness bands are not the only wearables experiencing hardware lock-ins; for example, Apple’s AirPods Max and Airpods Pro can only experience spatial audio and other features when paired with an Apple device. Still, those might be more justifiable as they likely require specific hardware capabilities on both ends to make the feature (like quick pairing) work. We could also potentially see wearables like XR headsets follow the path of other wearables already in market with some staying within their respective companies’ ecosystems and others aiming for a more platform agnostic approach. While a more open approach would be most beneficial to the industry, we may still see a continuation of the walled gardens.
There are many issues when it comes to traversing different mobile ecosystems, some more troublesome than others. Some may be addressed eventually, but many others are likely to remain as competitive moats to protect ecosystem investments. I believe these user portability and flexibility limitations ultimately hurt consumers and are more likely to reinforce the status quo than promote competition and innovation. If these companies are unwilling to make these changes on their own, regulation may be required to guarantee optimal consumer choice and portability. While some companies may advocate for more device-centric approaches to apps and ecosystems, the reality is that everything is cloud-enabled nowadays; it really shouldn’t be so difficult to communicate, share files and switch between devices. There will always be some friction between mobile ecosystems, but those barriers should be more like speed bumps and less like 30-foot-high castle walls to protect the walled gardens.